Filmmakers (and brothers) Albert and David Maysles follow four employees of a company that makes expensive, ornate, illustrated bibles as they attempt to sell the items door-to-door to less-than-interested customers, who are mainly poor or lower-middle-class Catholics with little money to spend on pretty Bibles.Written by
Gary Dickerson <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Documentaries are a fairly pervasive genre in today's culture, and an increasing trend is to manipulate the footage in order to further the authentication of one's thesis. Albert and David Maysles' 1969 documentary 'Salesman' however, turns an unflinching eye on its' subjects, sometimes with unnerving and disturbing results.
'Salesman' follows four door-to-door high-end bible salesmen as they travel around the country. The four men have nicknames they've given each other, all describing their sales approach: The Rabbit, The Badger, The Gipper and The Bull. We hear most from The Badger (Paul Brennan) as he takes his leads and tries to pull himself out of a sales slump. The leads that most of the salesmen follow end up being poor Catholic families who can't even afford a dollar a week payment, but are at times talked into it anyway by the sales tactics these men employ.
The Maysles give us an absolutely fascinating look at the world of door-to-door sales, but it is also a disturbing door to open. The pressure that the salesmen use when trying to sell the product, and the struggle that the prospects exhibit, is difficult to watch. In one scene, Brennan goes to the door of a recent customer to pick up their down payment for another of the salesmen and pretty much refuses to take 'No' for an answer, telling her that he's the salesman's boss and is going to have to dock him a fee if she cancels the sale, eventually guilting this family who clearly cannot take on another installment payment into going on with the sale. On the other hand, we also see sales meetings where the pressure is turned on the salesmen themselves, so it's clear that the threats of unemployment are a definite motivator.
I wondered throughout the film if David Mamet had seen this film and subsequently used it as inspiration for 'Glengarry Glen Ross'. From the sales meeting where the manager threatens the salesmen to the characters themselves, I saw several clear comparisons. Brennan is Lemmon's 'Shel' character to a tee, and I subsequently couldn't help chuckling at the image of The Simpsons' character 'Gil'. Whatever specific inspiration 'Salesman' has provided, it is clearly an important film that does not soften its edges. 7/10
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