Al Pacino, character development, GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS, One Great Scene, screenwriting tips, subtext -


In this series of articles, we’re going to do a deep-dive on one knockout scene from a great movie. Today’s movie is GLENGARRY GLENN ROSS. The scene is when Al Pacino delivers a monologue to Jonathan Pryce, the context being that Pacino’s character is trying to close a sale. Here’s a link to the scene as a refresher ( Pacino is trying to sell a real estate deal, yet says nothing about it, nor is what he is saying directly tied to the sale itself in any way. It’s a masterclass in dialogue from David Mamet.

The monologue begins with the statement, “All train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time.”

What? What does that have to do with anything? How did Mamet find that? The whole point here is that Pacino presents himself as a master of life to Pryce’s sad-sack character, and that personal seduction between them IS the sale.

Pacino continues, “When you die you’re gonna regret the things you don’t do. You think you’re queer, I’m gonna tell you something, we’re all queer. You think you’re a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality? Get shut of it, shut it out. Cheat on your wife, you did it, live with it. Fuck little girls, so be it. There’s an absolute morality? Maybe. And then what? If you think there is, go ahead, be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. You think that, act that way. Hell exists on Earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me.”

The level of subtext going on here is incredible. Again, the actual point of the scene is Pacino trying to sell Pryce the Glengarry deal. How does that connect, in any way, to the actual dialogue spoken?

It’s purely about intimate connection. Pacino’s character, through disclosure, is connecting himself to Pryce’s character. He’s telling him, in effect, I accept you, no matter who you are. And there is nothing you can choose to do that’s wrong. In fact, thinking that things are “wrong” is a type of prison. Life is short, choose not to live in a self-imposed hell… and do this deal with me. That’s what’s going on under the surface.

But again, none of that is spoken out loud. Here’s more:

“You ever take a dump made you feel like you just slept for twelve hours?” “Or a piss? Great meals, fade in reflection. Everything else gains. You know why? Cause it’s only food. Shit we put in us. Keeps us going. It’s only food. The great fucks you may have had, what do you remember about em’?” “I don’t know, for me, I’m saying what it is, it’s probably not the orgasm. Some broad’s forearm on your neck, something her eyes did.” “She brought me café o lait, gives me a cigarette, my balls feel like concrete. Eh? I’m saying, what is our life? Our life is looking forward or looking back, that’s it.” 

This approach, of pure subtext, to a wild degree, can be used in a ton of different ways in screenwriting. Any interrogation scene, a breakup, a firing, a proposal. This device, of pushing the subtext down to such a distant level, is what can take a scene from good to great. It’s not a coincidence Mamet won the Pulitzer for the play this film is based on. 

Is this a great scene to you? Let us know in the comments below. 

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