We live in an age where we are being sold to from all sides. Aside from advertising everywhere we go, phone salesmen and women are constantly trying to sell us their wares. Email has opened up a whole new - and far cheaper - way to push products on the consumer. What both of these methods have taken out is the salesmen themselves. This 1968 documentary from Albert Maysles, David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin takes a look at bible salesman trying to go house to house, making a territory of their own and attempting to fill sales quotas.
The film follows a small group of such salesmen across the country - it becomes a fascinating look behind-the-scenes of working-class men attempting to scramble to make a living. The sales meetings that the men find themselves in offer a subtle undercurrent of agression, as little jokes and small talk lead into boasting and further pushing for higher sales figures. The four main people we follow even have animal nicknames that describe their ways: Rabbit, the Gipper, the Bull, and the one we hear from the most, the Badger (Paul Brennan). Paul's sales are down and he shares his tales of defeat with the others, who don't want his negativity to drag them down with him.
The men are told to hold their head high, but their bright eyes and smiles hide exhaustion. It likely takes a bit out of a salesman when someone disinterested hangs up the phone, but I would certainly think that doors closing and people disinterested face-to-face would take a lot more out of a person, and we see examples of that here, as sales don't always happen. There's a lot of "Salesman" that can be seen in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross", especially with Jack Lemmon's superb performance in that film. They certainly resemble Willy Loman, as well. The directors do not push themselves into the situation; we are another person sitting at the table, waiting for the uplifted smile of a successful sale or a dissapointing failure. There's several passages during the film where I almost forgot that I wasn't watching characters in a movie, I was watching real life people who have to talk fast on their feet, pushing the product of faith and religion.
"Salesman" did bring the Maysles some degree of fame, but it was their Rolling Stones documentary "Gimme Shelter" that really gained them serious recognition.
VIDEO: "Salesman" is presented in the film's original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The new digital transfer was created from a 35mm duplicate negative on a high-definition Spirit Datacine. The result of Criterion's work here is mostly very successful. The black and white picture offers, considering the film's age, fine sharpness and detail. Some minor interior scenes here and there look slightly softer, but overall, the picture looked nice and crisp with no "haziness".
Some flaws do appear during the presentation, but I was mostly pleased with the lack of serious problems. Many of the film's scenes do appear mildly grainy, but I didn't find this a distraction from the film. Print flaws do occasionally appear - there are some visible speckles and the occasional mark, but not as much as I'd expected from a movie that's a little over thirty years old. The black and white images still look crisp and rich on this new presentation, not faded. There's some minor blemishes here and there, but overall, this is a fine piece of work from Criterion.
SOUND: "Salesman" is presented in mono audio, taken from a three-track magnetic audio master. The audio quality is perfectly fine and nothing more than I would expect from an over thirty year-old documentary. Some of the dialogue and sounds come across a little bit strained and thin sounding, but overall, the audio is enjoyable and listenable.
MENUS:: Criterion usually comes up with subtle, appropriate animated menus for many of their titles, but "Salesman" simply offers non-animated, film-themed images as backgrounds.
Commentary: This is a commentary from Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who were the film's directors. The two also previously provided a wonderful commentary for the Criterion edition of "Gimme Shelter". This is another new commentary from the two, which was recorded in 2001. Here, they share behind-the-scenes details of the making of the picture, as well as some details about the men that the film revolves around. They also occasionally discuss what really happened when they came to the door with cameras wanting to film the salespeople trying to work with that potential customer - the filmmakers had to sell themselves to these folks to get them on camera, just as the salespeople had to push their bibles. Maysles does most of the talking on the track; he's able to remember many stories from filming, but occasionally goes on other tracks to discuss the subject matter or his thoughts on filmmaking in general. A fine commentary that's well worth a listen.
The Rabbit on NPR: This is a 10 minute audio interview with "The Rabbit" (James Baker) on NPR's "Weekend Edition" in 2000. The former salesman, now retired, discusses his history selling bibles and his methods of not only getting himself in the door, but trying to complete the sale.
Jack Kroll: This is a 30 minute interview from 1968 with brothers David and Albert Maysles, who are interviewed by Jack Kroll. It's quite nice that Criterion was able to dig up this television interview, which is still in suprisingly fine condition. This is a strong interview that throws out some serious questions and, as a result, there are some very direct and informative answers from the directors, who discuss stories about the salesmen as well as their directing style. As a general comment, I appreciated watching this interview as I rarely seem to see this interview style today, since we seem to live in an era where interviewers on news shows generally throw out soft questions to filmmakers or actors.
Also: Photo album, theatrical trailer and filmographies.
Final Thoughts: Tragic, comedic and a fascinating documentary of four lives on the road attempting to make a living, "Salesman" is wonderful and important documentary. Criterion's new DVD edition is also a winner, with fine audio/video quality and some strong supplements. Recommended.
The Film ****
Video 83/B = (332/400 possible points)
Audio: 80/B- = (320/400 possible points)
Extras: 87/B = (261/300 possible points)
Menus: 70/C = (140/200 possible points)
Value: 84/B = (252/300 possible points)
FILM GRADE: ****
DVD GRADE: B