Arguably the best American documentary of the 1960s, Salesman
was the pivotal film of the "direct cinema" movement championed by such influential filmmakers as Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and (in this case) the Maysles brothers and their longtime collaborator Charlotte Zwerin. It catapulted Albert and David Maysles to international fame (later intensified with Gimme Shelter
), and it remains the most powerful document of working-class America in the post-Kennedy era. As compelling as any fictional drama, the film follows four salesmen (nicknamed the Badger, the Gipper, the Rabbit, and the Bull, based on their particular on-the-job attributes) from Boston to Florida as they struggle to sell lavishly illustrated Bibles to reluctant, blue-collar customers as desperate to keep their money as the salesmen are to take it.
The film focuses on the anguished plight of Paul "the Badger" Brennan, an aging Boston-Irish veteran of the salesman circuit, weary of his job and unable to hide his exhaustion from customers and colleagues alike. "I don't want to seem negative," he says in one of the film's many dreary motel rooms, but Paul is negative, and meager sales reflect his attitude. The resulting portrait serves as a two-way mirror of hard-scrabble American survival, simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking, and so honestly revealing that no performance (with the possible exception of Jack Lemmon's in Glengarry Glen Ross) could ever hope to match its level of richly nuanced humanity. Door-to-door salesmen became dinosaurs with the advent of telemarketing and Internet retail, but Salesman is a timeless masterpiece of cinematic truth. --Jeff Shannon
A landmark American documentary, Salesman
captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses-then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair.