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SALESMAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  David Maysles, Albert Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  September 4, 2001

Film ***1/2

Salesman was released 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.

Consider 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. 

He’s 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.

Religion 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.

Selling 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:  “No.”

It’s 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. 

Equally 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.

The 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.

The 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. 

There 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.

Video **1/2

It’s 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.

Audio **

No 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.

Features ***1/2

Criterion 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.

Summary:

Salesman is an honest, intimate look at a memorable group of ordinary men who do one thing day in and day out.  It’s a life that doesn’t exist much anymore, but the journeys of the Bible salesmen are as much a part of Americana as full service gas stations, carhops, or drive in movies.  It’s an interesting, entertaining, funny and touching film that may be modest in construction, but should be considered one of the all time great documentary pictures.