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.
Salesman, the 1969 documentary from filmmakers Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, is presented here on DVD from The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The restoration was sourced from a 35mm duplicate negative.
This ended up being a pleasant surprise back in the day and it holds up fairly well now. It’s still littered with damage, ranging from small specs to large marks and jumps in the frame, but considering the age of the film at the time I would have expected a heavier amount of damage. Blacks, whites, and grays all look pretty good, though there are moments where the image can take a bit of dupier look, which ends up crushing some of the blacks in the process.
The digital presentation itself manages to also be quite clean. Grain is there and managed remarkably well for the format, and detail levels are strong. There can be a slight haze at times, though this appears to be more of an issue with the source and nothing to do with the encode.
In the end it’s a decent standard-definition presentation, getting the job done, but isn’t much more than that.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono soundtrack also does its job, but that’s about the extent of it. Filmed using a camera that allowed for synched sound, I feel like the sound is ultimately limited by the equipment used and the off-the-cuff filmmaking style. Dialogue is easy to hear, but there is a harshness and edge to all of it. There’s also noticeable background a noise and a flatness to everything.
Criterion’s original DVD edition offered some impressive supplementary material, starting with an audio commentary featuring filmmakers Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who were both recorded separately. The track ends up being a nice mix of technical information and recollections and thoughts on the film years later. The two talk about first researching for the film (they had actually looked at different types of salespeople to follow) and then how they went about selecting and the following their subjects, and there are details around the equipment used for filming. They also touch on difficulties in planning appropriately and then having to explain their presence to the potential clients who were usually shocked to find a camera crew on their doorstep. But I most enjoyed the track when the two talk a bit more about the people they ran across, their surprise at how people would act when they knew they were on camera, and also enjoy picking apart the layers that the film exposes, not least of which being how capitalism managed to make a consumer product out of a religious item. They also talk about the moral issues the film brings up (specifically how it was usually poor people who were being targeted), and the difficulty in capturing all of this without interfering or bringing in a person bias. The Maysles films commentary tracks can be hit or miss with me (I still feel Gimme Shelter was too technical considering the subject matter) but this is probably the best one and manages to be both entertaining and engaging on its own.
To follow this up, Criterion digs up an archival interview with Albert and David Maysles, conducted in 1969 for a WCBS-TV series by Newsweek critic Jack Kroll at the time of the film’s release. Divided into 8 chapters and running 31-minutes, the three discuss this “direct cinema” versus a typical documentary (they explain they hate the term cinéma verité and refuse to acknowledge the film as such), while also getting into their rules of filmmaking and talking about certain moments presented in the film, particularly that cringe-worthy moment where the one subject, Paul Brennan, pulls a questionable tactic to get money. Some of this material is covered in the commentary track, but the advantage here is getting David’s own perspective on the film and their filmmaking style.
Criterion also includes an 11-minute segment from a 2000 airing of NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” which focused on the film Salesman and the subject of door-to-door salespeople. What makes this of particular interest, though, is that they managed to track down James “The Rabbit” Baker, the last surviving subject (at the time) from the film, and the most successful one. The Rabbit sits and recalls how he got into the sales business, and then he talks in detail about how his pitch worked, which involved taking into account any number of possible responses from potential clients and directing them closer to making that sale, and he explains how he would react to any of these responses; he just had a natural ability to feel out a client. Baker also talks a little about his career after the film (it’s not shocking to say that selling overpriced bibles was a limited place for growth) and his son also pops up to recount his own memories. Since the Maysles purposely avoided direct interviews for their film this is a great inclusion and I’m happy someone was able to do a more personal follow-up with one of the subjects of the film.
Criterion then includes a couple of galleries, including a collection a couple of collections of photos, one featuring the salesmen at work and the other offering behind-the-scenes moments between the filmmakers and the film’s subjects. There’s also a text gallery providing a selected filmography for the filmmakers. The disc also closes with the original theatrical trailer, and the included insert features a short essay on the film by Toby Miller.
Not stacked by any means, but the material, particularly the commentary, offered a wonderful amount of insight into the film and its technical accomplishments.
Though I would direct everyone to Criterion’s recent Blu-ray edition (which offers vastly superior visual presentation), Criterion’s DVD still does a notable job with its presentation.