Released 50 years ago this year, the subject matter of the now-classic Salesman (1969), at first glance at least, seems unlikely to make great cinema.

The film tells of traveling Bible salesmen trying to convince America’s poor of the need to purchase an expensive Catholic Bible. Yet the film’s creators, brothers Albert and David Maysles, are able to craft not so much a film about religion, or even one about selling, as a poignant meditation on the American Dream.

As regards the plot: A group of Mid-American Bible Company salesmen start out in a snowbound Boston—from where most of them hail—before the narrative quickly relocates to the sun of Florida. Whether it is snow or sun, however, it is the same sales pitch.

Each member of the sales team is known by an animal nickname: The Rabbit, The Gipper, The Bull, and the one who becomes central to the film, The Badger (Paul Brennan). The world these characters inhabit is one of starched white shirts, dark ties, and black-and-white television sets flickering in cheap motel rooms as morning cigarette coughs sound a new day of door-to-door selling.

Brennan is a Bible salesman who knows how to extol the virtues of reading and living by the Book he sells, but who has long since given up applying the practice to his own life. Alongside the other salesmen, who diligently and mater-of-factly go about their selling, Brennan cuts an increasingly forlorn figure. His sales are down, and so too is his confidence. He compensates by telling his co-workers and his boss various stories about the people he meets while analysing with superficial charm the impossibility of closing sales. Of course, this is all a front to hide his feelings of inadequacy. But Brennan is in plain sight to those around him. By the end of the film, his more successful colleagues have stopped listening to his ironic, sometimes witty, but ultimately self-pitying tales of woe. The looks on the others’ faces have moved from resignation to indifference as each night the team checks on each other’s sales or, in Brennan’s case, absence of sales. They know, and Brennan knows too, that it is not just the potential customers who are closing doors on The Badger.

Salesman is about more than the salesmen it chronicles, however. It is also a window into the world to which they sell. This is an America rarely glimpsed in Hollywood films. The salesmen are ringing doorbells, moving house to house through blue-collar Boston, and then through a not- yet Hispanic Miami. It is a world of lower-middle-class Americans, most of whom would struggle to make the $1-per-week repayment plan on the Bible that the salesmen are hawking. Those featured are mostly stay-at-home housewives who talk openly to the salesmen—and thus to the camera present—of how hard it is to make ends meet. When their husbands do appear on screen, inevitably they work in the Sanitation Department or at jobs that require long night shifts.

This is an America of “ordinary people,” of drab homes, women in curlers and men in cardigans wearing horn-rimmed glasses; everyone looks much older than their years. But it is also a world of social courtesies, of pleasant and respectful small talk on the part of the potential customers; the salesmen are equally convivial, if always with an eye to a sale. Their underlying carpet-bagging pushiness is never far from the surface, nor for that matter is the constantly inventive pseudo-intimacy of the salesmen’s patter.

It is an America that was coming to an end even when the film was being shot in 1967. Today, the world Salesman documents has vanished. Both the customers featured and the salesmen carrying their large Bibles door to door have all long since disappeared—and well before the onslaught of the present digital age. Salesman is now a historical document. As much as anything else, it is a record of how people used to live and work in the era just before our own.

What has not changed, however, and what is the ultimate focus of the film, is the existential angst. Brennan personifies one aspect of the American Dream: that of trying to make it “big”—in terms of both money and reputation—through sheer force of personality. Like those of his colleagues, Brennan’s sales are predicated upon his ability to woo his customers. The thing is, though, he has begun to give up on selling. His colleagues suspect this. They tell him that his customers also sense this and that this keeps translating into “no sale.”

Originally, the Maysles Brothers had intended to make a film about the whole sales team. As Salesman was being filmed, however, Brennan began to emerge as its central focus. Increasingly, the camera was drawn to the doomed charisma of Brennan. It follows him as he drives through almost surreal parts of suburban Florida, with names like Sinbad Ave, singing snatches of Fiddler on the Roof (“If I were a rich man…”) or maudlin Irish folk songs. While doing so, he describes the other team members, giving succinct summaries of how they sell and why they do so. It is clear that he is an intelligent man with insight. In one scene he alludes to the fact that his older brother has achieved academic success and that he, Brennan, was deemed the failure in the family. Whether this is true or not—Brennan is an unreliable narrator—in his current predicament his intelligence and insight are not so much a consolation as a curse.

Reminiscent of characters found in the pages of Flannery O’Connor, Brennan is also a real-life Willy Loman, the tragic protagonist of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. But in Salesman there is no outward drama to Brennan’s slow-burn breakdown. The film simply records the decline of a man and his world. It also displays the man’s seeming inability to prevent his inevitable drift downwards. What is more, the camera captures the fact that Brennan’s despair is such that he has long since ceased to care about any of this. The documentary format excels at such interior torments. And so, scene after scene, the camera lingers just long enough on Brennan so that in the words that come from his mouth, and in the subsequent reactions of his fellow salesmen, the audience is given access to the sadness at the centre of his life.

Consequently, both in his own sales pitches and in the lives of the people upon whose doors Brennan knocks, the American Dream appears empty. Dreams are often about what we imagine will fulfill us. In the world depicted in Salesman, Brennan’s pursuit of the American Dream is slowly draining him of life. He has become not a “new creation” as described in the book he carries with him constantly and tries to sell, but instead a “hollow man.”

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The featured image is a photograph depicting the production of Salesman (1969).

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