Criterion Review: SALESMAN (1969)

Capitalism, consumerism, and Christianity meet in this superb documentary

The era of the door to door salesman has largely passed. Instead we have Google, Facebook, and the rest tracking our online movements and throwing targeted ads our way. No more knocks at the door comes as a relief to most who remember them, but many of us can still appreciate insights into the characters that endured such a profession. Salesman is one such feature, that also manages to shed light on the blurring of the lines between capitalism and Christianity, something even more evident today, by documenting the travels and trade of a group of Bible salesmen.


This radically influential portrait of American dreams and disillusionment from Direct Cinema pioneers David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin captures, with indelible humanity, the worlds of four dogged door-to-door Bible salesmen as they travel from Boston to Florida on a seemingly futile quest to sell luxury editions of the Good Book to working-class Catholics. A vivid evocation of midcentury malaise that unfolds against a backdrop of cheap motels, smoky diners, and suburban living rooms, Salesman assumes poignant dimensions as it uncovers the way its subjects’ fast-talking bravado masks frustration, disappointment, and despair. Revolutionizing the art of nonfiction storytelling with its nonjudgmental, observational style, this landmark documentary is one of the most penetrating films ever made about how deeply embedded consumerism is in America’s sense of its own values.

Filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, along with Charlotte Zwerin (Gimme Shelter, Running Fence) put together a marvel of documentary film-making that even 50 years impresses. They followed a four man team of Bible salesman based out of New Jersey, each with their own nickname and style, as they try to hawk Bibles to parishioners. Life on the road, dingy hotel rooms, sales targets, and pitches, the film captures the life of the salesman while delving into the darker, grimier reality side too. Insistent badgering to make a sale, shifting tactics, words, demeanor for different people, or within the same conversation. The fact that their sales item is a $50 Bible gives the film an edge. Leveraging religious devotion or guilt leaves a bitter aftertaste. These salemen know they are duping or putting people into a position they cannot afford, and will not truly help them, but make the sales they must, even if it means offering a payment plan.

More then showing the people who are susceptible to their pitch, we see the toll taken on these men too. With a boss who equates sales and success, they are being sold on a dream too and largely buying into it. Their livelihood, and in some cases that of their whole family, relying on their determination and ability to goods around whatever town, city, or state they’re in. You can appreciate the approach and craft they show, as well as the sobering reality of how much of a grind this life is and how it’s largely dependent on dubious tactics.

Salesman has a fly-on-the-wall approach to watch these men and their customers in action. It manages to be intrusive in the sense of delving into these moments, but stays above the fray and avoids intrusion with an approach and editing style that is impressively juggled. What truly impresses is how deftly the film works to show the entanglement of two cornerstones of American life, capitalism and religion, and the power each has over a large swath of the populace, notably those more in need. In an era of Megachurches and private jet owning ‘Pastors’ milking crowds for millions, what’s depicted in Salesman might seem quite quaint, but the tale is no less enthralling, and at times just as distasteful.

The Package

Criterion present an all new 4K transfer and restoration that shows superb levels of detail, contrast, and saturation, all with a nice natural grain. The extra features are as excellent as you’d expect from Criterion:

  • Audio commentary from 2001 featuring directors Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin: Each recorded their contributions separately, but together they offer some nice insights into filming as well as recollections about their work with the four subjects. Most interesting is how they mapped out the film itself including as the type of salesmen they considered looking at, and how they kept their own opinions/judgment seperate from what unfolded
  • Television interview from 1968 with directors David and Albert Maysles, conducted by critic Jack Krolll: The Newsweek critic discusses the project with the directors during a segment from a series called Camera Three
  • New appreciation of the film by actor Bill Hader: The actor/comedian shares his affection for the film, something that inspired his work for Documentary Now!, which is also included here. Their in depth analysis of the original and homages paid is quite interesting to hear
  • Globesman,” a 2016 episode of the television series Documentary Now! that parodies the film, starring Hader and Fred Armisen: The series spoofs various different documentaries, and the Salesman inspired one is a very welcome addition, capturing much of the quirks and insights of the film, as well as the technical side, with plenty of hilarity added
  • Audio excerpt from a 2000 episode of NPR’s Weekend Edition profiling James Baker, one of the salesmen featured in the film: “the Rabbit” reminisces about how he got into the trade, how he honed his sales-pitch, and interactions with customers, and about his life after the films release. One of the most interesting additions here with an its infusion of personal details
  • Trailer:
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Michael Chaiken on the Blu-ray: Contained in the liner notes, which also contains film stills, and details on the restoration of the print
  • Cover based on the original theatrical poster by Henry Wolf

The Bottom Line

Saleman represents an essential slice of documentary film-making. A fascinating and sobering insight into the not only the trade of these hucksters but also into their soul. Men who have sold a part of themselves, much as their country has, serving the opposing ideals of religion and capitalism. Criterion offer up a resplendent restoration and some impressive extras to enhance appreciation.

Salesman is available via Criterion from March 10th

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