Revisiting ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ on Their 30th Anniversary

Tarantino, a would-be actor in the 1980s, presumably read “Glengarry” and seemingly learned from it. In addition to the similarities, both scripts pivot on the shocking unmasking of a sympathetic character as a traitor (though the reveal occurs midway through “Dogs” and at the end of “Glengarry”). Both riffed on the moody nihilism of film noir. And both find conflict and drama in putting their characters together in one confined space after the crime (the warehouse in “Dogs,” the real estate office in “Glengarry”) and letting them bounce off each other, roaring accusations and suspicions, bellowing obscenities and insults.

As is often the case when tempers flare and stakes are high, such unfiltered interactions give us a peek into the characters’ collective Id, and their common obsession is their own masculinity, the manliness of the work they do and how well they do it. That subtext is made text early in “Glengarry Glen Ross,” in its most revered scene (one that Mamet invented anew and added to his screenplay adaptation). Alec Baldwin appears as the viperous Blake, a hot shot from the home office who schleps down to the Sheepshead Bay branch to lead a sales meeting that amounts to eight straight minutes of vicious verbal abuse. “You can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them, then go home and tell your wife your troubles,” Blake instructs the cowering sales crew. “Because only one thing matters in this life — get them to sign on the line which is dotted!” As Georgia Brown noted in her Village Voice review, “In the trade’s lexicon, the magic verb is to close. When Aaronow” — the sad-sack salesman — “complains he can’t close ‘em anymore, he’s confessing impotence.”

“They’re sitting out there waiting to give you their money, are you gonna take it?” Blake taunts the busted-out Shelley Levene (Jack Lemmon), later in his pep talk. “Are you man enough to take it?” The director James Foley cuts to an agonizing close-up of Lemmon, steaming; his subsequent actions can all be traced to, and perhaps blamed on, that moment of harrowing public humiliation. As if to somehow make the accusation more explicit, Blake concludes his tirade by brandishing a pair of pendulous orbs on a string, announcing, “It takes brass balls to sell real estate,” before tossing them back in his briefcase.

Such hazing rituals are par for the course among the performative brutes of “Reservoir Dogs,” which is filled with male bonding rituals: playing the dozens, chewing the fat over coffee or beers, spinning tall tales about crime and sex, and, of course, breaking into dramatic near-fisticuffs at the slightest provocation. Yet the particulars of Tarantino’s men — their identical suits, their color-coded pseudonyms, their hidden identities — underscore the impersonality of their expected behaviors, rendering them interchangeable, and thus impotent, as the salesman of “Glengarry.”


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