Directors: David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Editors: David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
Features: Paul Brennan, James Baker, Raymond Martos, Charles McDevitt
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1969
Country: USA
Salesman DVD Cover

What is it about salesmen that bring to mind failure? From Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross, dramas on page, stage, and screen have consistently cast salesmen in the role of the tragic loser--the fundamental prototype of the failed American dream. Maybe it is because it is their job to peddle the wares of the American dream--those desirable material objects such as real estate and automobiles--that they are ultimately denied being a piece of the pie.

Although it was not their intention from the outset, this is precisely what the Maysles Brothers captured in their first feature-length documentary, Salesman, which presents a stark, indelible cinematic portrait of the trials and tribulations of the door-to-door salesman, a profession that is virtually extinct today.

Salesman follows the daily grind of a quartet of Irish-Catholic Bible salesmen working out of Boston, each of whom has an animal-related nickname that refers to his particular style of selling the Good Book: Paul "The Badger" Brennan, Charles "The Gipper" McDewitt, James "The Rabbit" Baker, and Raymond "The Bull" Martos. Nearly identical in their square, slicked-down haircuts, dark trousers, short-sleeved white shirts, and dark skinny ties, these four men ultimately emerge as distinct individuals, all of whom have the same goal, but go after it in vastly different ways.

The film emphasizes visually that their life as salesmen is their life. How they sell Bibles (with a choice of three easy payment plans, of course: cash, C.O.D., or the Catholic honor system) is their defining characteristic; within the context of the film, it is who they are. Thus, it is crucial that we never see their personal lives--where they live, their spouses, or children. We hear one perfunctory phone call home, but that is the extent of contact with their loved ones. Rather, the film emphasizes their world as one of travel--all the action takes place in hotel rooms, in the living rooms and kitchens of the people to whom they are selling, and in the cars they use to travel between the two locations. It is a grind, and one that can seem endless. When Paul Brennan grouses about how long he has been on the road, someone tells him that it's only been four days. "Is it four days? Seems like four weeks," he says.

Paul Brennan ultimately emerges as the central character of the foursome, if only because he is easiest to identify with. The oldest of the group, Brennan has begun to slow down in recent years, and his sales have not been so good. Despite the fact that they are selling the Bible, it is plainly clear from the outset that these four men are cogs in the capitalist money-making machine. Regardless of the professed nobility of their profession (one man at a sales convention refers to it as a "calling"), they labor under the pressure of quotas that absolutely must be met. Brennan is not making the sales he needs, and the film tracks his slow decline and the ensuing crisis. It is a sad spectacle to watch, and in many ways Salesman is a deeply depressing experience, focused as it is on failure.

Yet, the film is also slyly funny, which is the only thing that keeps it from being completely morose. One critic who saw the film twice described it as a tragedy the first time he saw it and a comedy the second time. There is something perversely humorous about the whole concept of selling Bibles door-to-door, especially when they are huge, tastelessly gaudy, exceptionally expensive ("as low as $49.95," which was a lot of money more than 30 years ago), and utterly unnecessary (all the people to whom they're selling already own Bibles). Some of the darkest humor emerges in scenes that depict failed sales calls, especially one in which "The Rabbit" presses and presses on a poor woman who doesn't speak English very well. He continually repeats that he can take orders for a new missal, which, in his thick Boston accent, sounds like "we can take awh-duhs," which makes no sense to this woman of Spanish descent living in Florida.

The dynamic between the salesmen--victims of their overbearing profession--and the housewives on whom they call--victims of the salesmen's underhanded tactics--is fascinating. Many have described Salesman as a "women's film," because we often feel more empathy for the housewives--many of whom are obviously not very well off financially--as they are goaded, pressured, and sometimes outright manipulated by these desperate Bible peddlers.

Where religion ends and commerce begins is an indistinct line, so much so that the salesmen take the commercialization of God's word as a given. The actual contents of the Bible have long since taken a backseat to glossy, full-color illustrations and the varieties of shades in which the leather cover is available. A long sequence that takes place in a sales convention in Chicago is particularly insightful, as discourse regarding the supreme goal of amassing money through sales and discourse about the importance of "doing God's work" is freely mixed, as if they are one in the same.

Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin employed their method of direct cinema in making Salesman. The idea behind direct cinema is that the use of lightweight cameras and recording instruments allows the filmmakers to capture life as it happens without any direct or indirect intervention--a sort of "fly on the wall" technique. They refused to add postproduction narration, and instead relied on editing and context to tell the story and make the points (David Maysles has described direct cinema as the answer to Virginia Woolf's question, "What, if left to its own devices, would cinema be?").

This method has served the Maysles well in numerous other documentaries (including 1970's Gimme Shelter and 1976's Grey Gardens), and here it is especially effective, as it allows them into the homes of nameless strangers to whom the salesmen are hawking their wares. We are privileged with an intimate glimpse into how these men work, and we are sometimes shocked by their casual lies, willful misguidance, and incessant pressing, to the point that it literally becomes embarrassing. Yet, we understand why they do it, even if we wouldn't want them in our living room.

Salesman Criterion Collection Directors' Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioDolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
1969 TV interview with Albert and David Maysles
2000 interview with James "The Rabbit" Baker on NPR's Weekend Edition
Behind-the-scenes photographs
Original theatrical trailer
Distributor The Criterion Collection / Home Vision

Salesman has been given a high-definition transfer in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio from a 35mm duplicate negative (the transfer was approved by co-director and cinematographer Albert Maysles). The film was originally shot on 16mm film, an inherently grainy medium, a factor that is further accentuated once it is blown up to 35mm. The image on this DVD, therefore, is quite grainy, which is especially noticeable in scenes were there are large parts of the screen that are all one color (the sky, for instance). This is not distracting in any way, though, and it adds visually to the direct cinema technique and the somber subject matter. Age-related artifacts are minimal; there are almost no scratches or nicks, but a few noticeable vertical lines. The image is bright and generally sharp throughout, much better than I have ever seen it look on video. Black levels tend to be grayish, but it is in keeping with the overall look of the film.

Presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural, the soundtrack is passable. Recorded with a single microphone on hand-held equipment, it probably never sounded great, even for monaural. But, most importantly, all the dialogue is clearly audible (unless you have trouble with "Bah-stan" accents) and there is a minimum of hiss and aural artifacts

Co-directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (David Maysles passed away 14 years ago) contribute a screen-specific audio commentary that is, in many ways, more philosophical and historical than cinematic (Albert Maysles talks quite a bit about how he and his brother were heavily influenced by the fact that the grew up Jewish in Boston where the Irish were their "enemies"). They engage in lengthy discussions of what the film means and reminisce about the salesmen they filmed. They do have some interesting insights into the art of documentary filmmaking, and at one point, Albert Maysles shares his theory that people trusted him and his brother as filmmakers because, deep inside, everyone wants to be represented in some way as they really are, which they felt the Maysles could do.

In addition to the commentary, this disc offers a full interview with Albert and David Maysles done in 1969 by Newsweek critic Jack Kroll as part of WCBS-TV's "Camera Three" series. Divided in eight chapters and running just over half an hour in length, it contains some interesting insights into the Maysles' direct cinema method. It might have been a little bit better had all three men not talked over each other quite so much, but that often happens when people bursting with ideas are all put in a room together.

This disc also includes an audio recording of an 11-minute segment of National Public Radio's Weekend Edition from 2000 in which producer Dan Collison tracked down the only living salesman from the film, 65-year-old James "The Rabbit" Baker. Baker talks mostly about what it was like to be a salesman and little about the film itself, but it is engrossing to hear him after more than 30 years.

Finally, the disc includes two photograph galleries, one of which contains photos of the salesmen during the making of the film and the other of which includes behind-the-scenes shots and photos from the film's premiere. Also included is the original theatrical trailer and a set of filmographies for Maysles Films and Charlotte Zwerin.

Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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