Review by Michael Jacobson
David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: See Review
Length: 91 Minutes
Release Date: September 4, 2001
a year before I was born, but it made me wax nostalgic for many reasons.
The clothes, the home décor, the hairstyles, even the Bibles being
peddled in the picture reminded me very much of people and places I knew when I
was very young. My aunt, a
non-practicing Catholic, had a good book very similar to the ones we see in the
film. The nostalgia mostly came,
though, because the movie captured a way of life and a spirit that doesn’t
really exist anymore.
the indomitable salesman, who to this day, is lured into his profession by the
promises of big money and independence. It’s
the quintessential American dream: if
you work hard, you’ll succeed. A
quartet of men in this documentary have clearly subscribed to that dream, and
are living in various stages of it. The
most prominent is Paul, nicknamed “The Badger”.
He’s getting up in years, and you can see the arthritis in his hands as
he eagerly turns the pages for his potential customers.
We are told he was once a 13 book-a-week man.
since dropped to about three per week, the cause of some concern.
He depends on the sales for his livelihood.
Moreover, at an early sales meeting, some chairs are conspicuously empty.
“Not because we didn’t like ‘em, not because we didn’t need their
few sales,” the boss intones. The
message is clear: survival of the
fittest. In the world of sales, you
produce, or you get passed by.
and money go together…that’s sometimes an uncomfortable fact, but an
undeniable one. Some may scoff when
the plate gets passed at church, but buildings require maintenance, electricity,
water, phone service…none of which is free.
The Bible may be a holy book, but if you have one in your home, the fact
is, somewhere along the line money exchanged hands to put it there.
Paul and his associates fill a necessary role, selling beautiful heirloom
Bibles with gold trim and large pages for $49.95 to simple middle class families
that can rarely afford it. Those
who can’t pay up front are given the option of a “Catholic Honor Plan”,
which inspires images of some wayward priest named Guido showing up at your
front door to break your thumbs if you haven’t paid.
is a delicate art, and in this movie, we see it practiced over and over again.
The right words, a glib tongue, and a necessary amount of manipulation
are required. It conjures up many metaphors…it’s a chess game, a square
dance…the salesman’s main objective is to get the upper hand.
The problem is, he can never have it completely, because the customer can
always take it from him with a single word:
hard not to feel for Paul. His
negativity is starting to show. He
may have been at the top of his game once, but it’s hard not to conclude that
the game has gone by without him. When
a charming, enthusiastic younger salesman Bull offers to go out on a call with
him, all seems well, until Paul chimes in with a few wayward thoughts that seem
to wreck the deal. Paul’s story
plays out like the unwritten lengthy prologue to Death of a Salesman.
as interesting as the sales calls are the behind the scenes moments, as the
weary men gather in hotel rooms, talk about their troubles, share a laugh or
too. The aforementioned boss,
Kenny, shows his prowess on a sales call…his style comes very close to out and
out bullying, but it works. He sits
back later, self-satisfied, and declares that anyone who doesn’t have success
in their business isn’t giving it all they’ve got. Some enthused salesmen immediately begin to boast of the
$35,000 to $50,000 they intend to make in the coming year. Meanwhile, guys like Paul get more discouraged.
He IS giving it all he’s got. But
selling is a feast or famine profession. You
could make money hand over fist one month, and starve the next.
fellows make a constant crack about “joining the force, getting a pension”.
In other words, the kind of safe, routine existence they all shunned to
be where they are today. For the
younger ones, it still inspires a good laugh.
For Paul, one begins to wonder if it's something of a swan song.
Maysles Brothers are master documentarians.
They describe their style as “direct filmmaking”…they don’t set
up lights, tell their subjects where to move, or offer any guidance.
They point and shoot. And
they’ve demonstrated a knack for knowing where to point their cameras, whether
it's to capture a sullen Paul in the middle of a gung ho sales meeting or a man
getting stabbed to death at a major rock concert.
is a courage and confidence that shines through their work.
Salesman is a modestly made film, but an extremely important one
for what it captured and preserved for posterity.
Door to door selling is an all but vanished way of life today, what with
catalogs, Wal-Marts, internet shopping and so on, but this movie lends a quiet
dignity to the men who tromp along with case in hand, smile on face, and
outstretched palm, hoping that what he brings to the table will add to the
appeal of his wares, knowing that success or failure is always a mere
doorknob’s turn away.
kind of hard to judge a thirty-plus year old black and white film shot
inexpensively on 16 mm stock. A
movie like Salesman could never look great.
Having said that, Criterion’s DVD looks probably as good as could be
hoped for. There is a slight
graininess to the appearance that can’t be helped…it’s not a transfer
issue, but a stock issue…and there are some signs of aging here and there:
a scratch, some specks, or a bit of dinginess.
Still, images are generally as well defined as possible without signs of
artificial enhancement, and there is no shimmer, ringing, or other artifacts of
compression. It’s very good for
what it is…it’s just that what it is will never really be THAT good.
complaints on the mono audio track, which was again recorded fairly cheaply.
Dialogue is clear and intelligible throughout, which is the main point. Music rarely exists, and there’s certainly no call for
dynamic range or multi-speaker capabilities.
It’s a very serviceable track, nothing more or less.
has once again packaged a winner for a Maysles Brothers film on DVD.
For starters, there’s a very informative commentary track recorded
separately by Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.
They cover all aspects from the filming and editing, to their subject
salesmen, to the idea of the film preserving a bygone era of American life.
It’s a good, interesting listen. There
is also a 1968 interview with the Maysles, which delves into their style and
approach to making movies. There is
a radio clip of the long retired “Rabbit” on Weekend Edition, some
behind the scenes photos, a trailer, and filmographies for the movie makers.
All in all, a good extras package.