In terms of documentary filmmaking, the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman must be regarded as a brilliant and ground-breaking piece of work, displaying an admirable degree of apparent impartiality in their filming of the activities of a group of four door-to-door Bible salesmen, doing the Lord’s work selling their wares across the country to initially reluctant customers who simply just hadn’t yet realised how much they needed a deluxe bound Catholic Bible in their homes. More than being significant for the manner in which the Maysles managed to inconspicuously blend into the background while the men go about the daily work, or for the technical accomplishment of capturing the essential moments on changeable ten-minute reels of celluloid, is the filmmakers ability to identify the real drama that is being played out gradually before their eyes - the weakness of one of the salesmen and his declining faith in his ability to clinch the deal - and their skill in bringing this often unspoken narrative drive visually to the forefront.
The psychological richness of the subject and the timeless techniques of the salesman of course contribute greatly to the film still being as fresh, fascinating and relevant even today. Despite all the advances of modern business management skills and courses in marketing techniques, the underlying principles remain the same now as they did when Salesman was made in 1966 – find a lead, search for an opening, establish a rapport with the customer, and close the sale before they have time to even consider they have the option to say no. If you fail to make progress at any stage, it’s best to make an early exit and get on to a better prospect. Time is money.
If you’ve ever worked in the business of sales, or even if you’ve only seen Glengarry Glen Ross, this will all be familiar to you – the urgency that is instilled through the company managers though thinly-veiled threats, the need to constantly follow-up any potential lead, the need to keep on top of a game where you’re only as good as your last sale – and when times get rough, it seems like an impossible hole to climb out of. That is the dilemma faced by Paul Brennan ‘The Badger’, a Boston based salesman for the Mid-American Bible Company whose situation and appearance bears such an uncanny resemblance to Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, that you have to suspect that the Mayles Brothers’ film was an obvious reference for David Mamet and James Foley. The drama in Salesman is just as intense, just as life-or-death, only here it’s for real.
Very quickly, what initially appears to be a fascinating insight into the working methods of this type of commerce - both from the point of view of the techniques used by the salesmen and the type of people they spin their pitch on – suddenly takes on an important human interest dimension. The pressures involved are obvious – not just from the heavy leaning-on the team by their sales manager Kennie at the sales conferences and pep talks, but from the competition between each of the men. It never reaches the levels of vicious backbiting and underhand scheming of Glengarry Glen Ross, but the consequences are just as clearly evident. The other members of the team deal with their losses and move on, while Paul struggles with his failures. The tension that this gulf creates between the younger men and the old-hand is palpable and painful. They are not unwilling to help, taking him on joint operations, but when it becomes evident that he is not willing to help himself, and is only costing them sales they could have made themselves – vital commissions that are the only income they receive – the shutters rapidly come down.
This is highly-charged material and the Maysles realise that it doesn’t need a narrator to explain what is happening and it doesn’t need interviews with each of the men to give their viewpoints. Paul’s sense of loss and failure is evident in his inability to deal with the confusing road signs of Miami beach, in his increasingly downbeat monologues in an Irish brogue and in his very expression as he silently ruminates on his situation. It can also be seen on the faces of his colleagues as they watch him sink. The Maysles capture the essential moments of this sad decline in a way that is remarkably compelling and deeply human – characteristics that make this film just as powerful now as it undoubtedly was when it was first shown.
Salesman is released in the UK by Eureka under their Masters of Cinema imprint and is #42 in the series. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in NTSC format and is not region encoded.
Licenced from Maysles Films, the transfer on Salesman is everything it should be. Shooting on 16mm film stock in black-and-white, there is inevitably quite a bit of grain visible, particularly considering the age of the material and the conditions in which it was shot, inevitably making use of whatever natural light was available in the day-to-day location shooting. Nevertheless, the transfer handles this tremendously well, without a trace of the dot-crawl or macroblock shifting that might be expected in such difficult material. Moreover, the tones are correct throughout and there is not a visible mark on the print. It hard to imagine that this could look much better.
The original audio track is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono and it’s slightly more problematic, but only due to the conditions of the original sound recording. Inevitably, making a documentary on the run like this, the dialogue can often be difficult to make out clearly, particularly when the characters mumble incoherently, or when several people are talking over each other. Again however, it’s as good as it could possibly be and, helpfully, English hard of hearing captions are available.
Due to the difficulties in catching some of the dialogue I referred to the captions quite frequently, and they do a marvellous job. In an effort to be comprehensive, they do often stretch to three lines, but seem to capture every nuance. They are in a white font, clearly readable and are, of course, optional.
You would just love for there to be deleted material in the extra features that might, in the manner of the Maysles’ The Beales Of Grey Gardens, reveal another facet to the characters as they are seen in the documentary, but sadly there is no additional footage here. What is included however is informative and worthwhile. The main feature is a newly filmed Interview with Albert Maysles (34:32), which provides some insight into the filmmakers’ methods and ambitions for the shooting of Salesman. There is rather too much time spent on the formal aspects of the filming, but technical buffs will enjoy seeing the original camera and see how it was operated. Much more fascinating however is a Kennie Turner and Albert Maysles Q&A (18:50) at a screening of the film in 2005. Kennie Turner is the actual sales-manager seen in the film, and he reminisces about the period and the people he worked with. The Original Trailer Trailer (3:14) also looks very well, and sets out the nature of the film superbly. A 36-page booklet is also enclosed which, as ever, is beautifully illustrated with promotional and behind-the-scenes stills and contains a reprint of Howard Junker’s original 1969 Production Notes on the film, which provide a wealth of background information on the Maysles, the film, its themes and the technical details of its making.
No matter what line of work you are in or what your interests are, you’ll immediately identify the techniques and psychology employed by these Bible salesmen, see their modern day relevance, and understand the human element that lies beneath - an element that the Maysles have remarkably been able to bring to the surface. I’m no salesman, and even as a reviewer of DVDs and films, my work is not about selling a product, but a form of salesmanship is involved nonetheless since I’m trying to sell my opinion. Hopefully, I’ll have delivered my pitch well here, established a level of connection that the reader might identify with in the film, and sold you on the fact that Salesman is a richly rewarding film and relevant to you. And I’m prepared to offer a lifetime guarantee of total satisfaction on that. If you’d just click on any of the links to the left - it’s a decision you’ll never regret.