Salesman (film)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Salesman is a 1969 direct cinema documentary film directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin.



The documentary follows four salesmen as they travel across New England and southeast Florida trying to sell expensive Bibles door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods and attend a meeting in Chicago. The film focuses in particular on the struggles of salesman Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Catholic from Jamaica Plain, Boston, who struggles to maintain his sales.

Interviews and the salesmen

  • Jamie Baker, "The Rabbit"
  • Paul Brennan, "The Badger"
  • Raymond Martos, "The Bull"
  • Charles McDevitt, "The Gipper"
  • Kennie Turner
  • Melbourne I. Feltman
  • Margaret McCarron


The Maysles brothers decided they 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 shot. The handheld microphone used to record the film's sound is visible in other shots.

Salesman was self-funded by the Maysles brothers, costing approximately $100,000. The Maysles brothers paid each salesman $100, along with their expenses. During production, the crew consisted of Albert Maysles shooting and lighting and David Maysles doing sound. Albert Maysles never prompted anyone for the film, except when he asked Paul to describe his fellow salesmen. In determining who and what they were going to film, the Maysles brothers looked at the salesmen's schedules. Throughout production, the Maysles brothers sent the footage to Zwerin, who viewed the footage and provided feedback. When post-production began, David Maysles and Zwerin tried to structure a story about the four salesmen but found they did not have the material. Instead, they realized that they were dealing with a story about Paul.

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; and televised boxing matches.

As stated in the closing credits,

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.

Salesman was filmed in January 1967 (perhaps also late December 1966) and bears a copyright date of 1968.


When Salesman was completed, there were challenges in showing the film. As the Maysles brothers tried to get distribution, they were told that the content was too depressing and realistic for the public. The Maysles brothers self-distributed through their production company, Maysles Films, and they booked theaters for screenings. The first theatrical screening occurred on April 17, 1969, at the sixty-eighth Street Playhouse in New York City.


Critical response

The film was first released, Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film and wrote, "...[the] documentary feature about four door-to-door Bible salesmen who move horizontally through the capitalistic dream. It's such a fine, pure picture of a small section of American life that I can't imagine its ever seeming irrelevant, either as a social document or as one of the best examples of what's called cinema vérité or direct cinema...It is fact, photographed and recorded with extraordinarily mobile camera and sound equipment, and then edited and carefully shaped into a kind of cinematic mural of faces, words, motel rooms, parlors, kitchens, streets, television images, radio music—even weather." Documentary filmmaker James Blue once said of Albert Maysles that, “his cinema is one in which ethics and aesthetics are interdependent, where beauty starts with honesty, where a cut or a change in camera angle can become not only a possible aesthetic error, but also a ‘sin’ against truth.”

Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune listed Salesman as one of the ten best films of 1970.


In 1992, Salesman was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Salesman (film)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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