“If a guy’s not a success, he’s got nobody to blame but himself.”
Four luxury-Bible salesmen in Florida experience varying degrees of success while going door to door in low-income neighborhoods.
Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:
Self-funded by brothers Albert and David Maysles (former salesmen themselves), this “non-fiction feature” offers a pathos-filled glimpse at mid-century American men attempting to make a living by convincing customers they “need” something luxurious. This simple premise generates a surprising amount of tension, as we can’t help wanting the salesmen — particularly sad-sack, overly honest Irishman Paul Brennan — to succeed in their careers, but we also hate seeing vulnerable customers succumb to a pressure-filled sales pitch. The Maysles apparently followed these four men along on their travels, then edited their footage into a compelling narrative — one that happened to document a unique slice of American life along the way. This would make an excellent double-bill, of course, with Death of a Salesman (1951).
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- A moving if depressing look at the life of salesmen in America
- Many memorable scenes
Yes, as a classic American documentary. Selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1992.
- Genuine Classic
- Historical Relevance
One thought on “Salesman (1968)”
A once-must, for its place in documentary history. I don’t think the average film lover – or even film fanatic – is a firm follower of documentaries. Even though ‘Salesman’ is an intriguing and informative film about human nature, it may still be less accessible (compared, say, to something like the Maysles’ own ‘Grey Gardens’ or ‘Gimme Shelter’) and it’s possible that hardcore documentary fans will appreciate this one the most.
It is, indeed, difficult watching people being given the pitch for something they don’t really need (as stated, something “luxurious”) – but are repeatedly told is of great value for family growth and unity. Most of the potential customers shown are lower-class, and it’s quite evident that most of them have real difficulty making ends meet. It becomes a kind of mild torture for them – and the viewer – as the salesmen appeal strongly to their Catholic natures (most of them are Catholic, of course). It’s a bit like they’re preying on those who pray. Anyone who has first-hand experience in growing up Catholic will sense that some of these people have a very hard time saying no because they are guilt-ridden about saying no to the Bible and, by extension, the Catholic church. In one particularly bizarre (for me) moment, Paul reminds one customer, just post-sale, to make sure to get the Bible blessed in a church as soon as possible…or it will do them no good. (Huh?! I was even raised Catholic and I don’t quite get the severity of that remark.)
~…We see things going a bit more smoothly for the salesmen when they are pitching to upwardly mobile (much less-financially strapped) home owners.
This doc also has much to say about the value of confidence…as note the way Raymond Martos (nicknamed ‘The Bull’) seems to almost glide through his work, compared with the other three men. Martos exudes a real masculine air and, in a rugged, beefy way, is the most attractive of the salesmen. He seems to always know how to make things work (for the most part) in his favor – which shows the value of selling yourself as much as the product you’re selling. Who can deny the power of slick presentation? It seems believable and plausible – in one late sequence – that a satisfied female customer (seemingly very bored with her husband) is much more interested in Martos personally, and that the reading material she has agreed to buy, in the intimacy of her living room, is of less interest to her than her salesman.