April 17, 1969
Directed by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
"Salesman" is fresh, funny, and most importantly, true to life. This realistic documentary simply follows four Bible salesman and permits us give the final judgment.
As I sat down to “Salesman” by the Maysles Brothers, a follow-documentary about Bible salesman on the East Coast, I effortlessly thought of my own mission when I was expected to go door-to-door selling religion. It is one thing to ask someone to lend an ear to what you have to say, but these Bible salesman are asking for money. That seems even more difficult to obtain.
In a “Reservoir Dogs”-like fashion we are introduced a crew of four salesmen, each with an affectionate handle. The Rabbit, the Badger, the Bull, and the Gipper... Their names say a lot about their character and each of these characters say a lot. Paul Brennan, an Irish-American, moves into the spotlight. Though he is the oldest of the salesman (40s I’d wager) he is struggling the most in this line of work. At night he is a joker and frequently remarks in a mock-accent true to his heritage, “Why doncha join the force and get a pension?”
“Salesman” is known for embodying the cinéma vérité (direct cinema) approach to documentary filmmaking. For 1969 it feels very fresh as the camera follows our peddlers in and out of houses, but often getting no further than the doorstep. I can relate. The handheld and other roughish techniques are obvious but add to the authenticity of the experience. A favorite scene of mine had Jamie Baker (“The Rabbit”) desperately trying to push a Bible onto a Latina woman. He is excited to inform her of a new product, but she just wants to make it clear that she is not interested now. Baker’s Boston accent is hard enough for us to discern, for the English-is-a-second-language woman he does not even stand a chance.
The salesmen role-play and attend seminars in hopes to be better at their chosen profession. There is a clear distinction between their personalities in “sale mode” and not. I believe it is “The Bull” who sometimes sings, “If I Were a Rich Man” on the way to a potential customer. If only. By the film’s end Brennan is ready to throw in the towel. He repeats his line, “Why doncha join the force and get a pension?” This time it is not for laughs.