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Salesman: The Criterion Collection

Now that the phenomenon of the door-to-door salesman has all but come to a close (discounting Jehovah's Witnesses), there's an added dimension to the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin's brutal 1969 documentary Salesman: that of historical document. The film follows a group of door-to-door Bible salesman — all with animal nicknames — who go from neighborhood to neighborhood of prospective Bible buyers (people who unwittingly filled out a card at their local church), but focuses mainly on Paul "The Badger" Brennan, who's on a cold streak and trying to get back on his game. As we see the different styles of pitches used for each family (some of whom are living from paycheck to paycheck) it becomes obvious that the Bible salesmen will use any tactic they think will sell their wares, from browbeating to piety to flattery. And it would have been easy for the Maysles' camera to stop at the moment where it becomes obvious (after a sales meeting) that the salesmen don't care about the meaning of the book they are selling, only their fiscal situation, but — like most of the Maysles efforts — the film goes deeper into the struggle of the salesmen. These men are trying to keep their heads above water as in every situation they enter — they have to sell sell sell, making them sympathetic figures, even if we wouldn't want them on our front porches. Brennan is an especially fascinating character — he knows he's losing his edge and keeps relaying personal stories and jokes meant to get him pity, which makes him look sad, obnoxious, and ridiculous by turns (it's apparent that Brennan is all too aware of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman). And even though this style of salesmanship has been superseded by telemarketers and junk mail, and while the threat of these men on your doorstop has vanished, the attitudes of salesmen have not changed. Sales at its heart is hustling, and it's still very alive today, keeping Salesman a fascinating commentary on the most transparent facet of capitalism. (It's also notable that David Mamet must have perused this before penning Glengary Glen Ross, as Shelley "The Machine" Levene seems the progeny of Brennan.) Criterion's DVD presents the film in its original full-frame aspect ratio (1.33:1) in a grainy black and white transfer with the original monaural (1.0) soundtrack. The supplements are dense, including an informative commentary by surviving brother Albert Maysles and Zwerin, a 30-minute television interview from 1969 of the Maysles Brothers, a recent 10-minute interview with James "The Rabbit" Baker from NPR about selling door to door, photos, filmographies, and a trailer. Keep-case.
—DSH



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