Salesman (1969): Seminal Docu by Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin

A seminal direct-cinema documentary about door-to-door Bible salesmen, Salesman was co-directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.

Salesman
Monochramatic illustration of Jesus with a halo carrying two briefcases.

Theatrical release poster

The docu follows four salesmen as they travel across New England and southeast Florida trying to sell expensive Bibles door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods.

There’s also a detailed chronicle of a sales meeting in Chicago.

Ultimately, the film focuses on one man, salesman Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Catholic from Jamaica Plain, Boston, who struggles to maintain his sales.

Cast:
Paul Brennan, “The Badger”
Charles McDevitt, “The Gipper”
James Baker, “The Rabbit”
Raymond Martos, “The Bull”
Kennie Turner, Bible Sales Manager
Melbourne I. Feltman, Theological Consultant
Margaret McCarron, Motel Maid

The Maysles brothers wanted to be the first to make a nonfiction feature film (which turned out to be Salesman) after learning that Truman Capote had made the claim that his newly released book In Cold Blood was a nonfiction novel. The film was made on a low budget; just under seven minutes into the film, one of the two cameras used can be seen in the shot which was not unusual for a documentary film. The handheld microphone used to record the film’s sound is visible in other shots, also not unusual in a documentary setting.

Salesman was self-funded by the Maysles brothers, with a low budget budget of $100,000. The brothers paid each salesman $100, along with their expenses

Albert Maysles never prompted anyone for the film, except when he asked Brennan to describe his fellow salesmen. In determining whom and what they would film, the Maysles brothers consulted the salesmen’s schedules.

Throughout production, the Maysles brothers sent footage to Zwerin, who viewed it and provided feedback. When post-production began, David Maysles and Zwerin tried to structure a story about four salesmen, but found they did not have enough material, so they focused on Brennan.

The Maysles brothers had themselves been door-to-door salesmen in the past, selling everything from cosmetics to encyclopedias. While filming, they became part of the pitch, telling those who let the salesmen and the camera crew into their homes that they were now part of “a human interest story.”

Elements of popular culture that appear as backdrops to the main story include the song “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof; a recorded orchestral performance of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday”; The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; the theme music of the television series Ben Casey; and televised boxing matches.

The filming team of Albert and David Maysles went home to Boston to take another look at the kind of people they grew up with. The idea for the film was researched and developed by David Maysles, who found the salesmen. The photography was by Albert Maysles. The film was edited by David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.

Self-Distribution

The Maysles brothers faced challenges in showing the completed film, told that the content was too depressing for the lay public. They then self-distributed it through their production company, Maysles Films, and booked theaters for screenings. The first theatrical showing was on April 17, 1969, at the 68th Street Playhouse in New York.

Response to Pauline Kael Criticism:

Pauline Kael seems to be implying that we, as filmmakers, are responsible for the events we film by suggesting that we set them up or helped to stage them. In referring to our previous film, Salesman, Kael says “the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roof-and-siding business, to play a Bible salesman.” Paul Brennan had been selling Bibles for eight years prior to the making of our film and was selling Bibles when we met him. No actors were used in Salesman. The men were asked to simply go on doing what they normally did while we filmed. … We don’t know where Kael got her facts. We do know that her researcher phoned Paul Brennan, one of the Bible salesmen, and told him that The New Yorker was interested in doing an article about him. He made it quite clear to her that he was a Bible salesman and not a roof-and-siding salesman when we made the film about him. Aside from his own statement, this could easily have been checked out by contacting his employers, the Mid-American Bible Company–Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin

Critical Status:

In 1992, Salesman was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” The film was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2018.

TCM showed this movie on May 24, 2021.