A verite masterpiece of the bullshit that America sells itself, Albert and David Maysles' Salesman, from 1968, documents a way of life that was dying even then -- the soiling grind of getting by as a door-to-door salesman, talking people who don't want you there into buying junk they don't need with money they're almost certainly short on. Salesman's milieu of motels and pork-pie hats may have passed, but its broader diagnosis has lost none of its truth. In huckster America, everyone's a mark.
The Maysles and co-director Charlotte Zwerin capture the peddling of Bibles to families near Boston and in Opa-Locka, Florida. The filmmakers follow a quartet of not-especially-religious sharpies and wannabes as they work what they call "the territory," just like the fast-talkers in The Music Man. Some seem born to the life; others, like Paul "The Badger" Brennan, seem to be trying to look like they're born to it, talking the talk and selling the idea of themselves as salesmen.
Working on behalf of the Mid-American Bible Company, and always blessed with the imprimatur of a local church, this crew turns up at the homes of parishoners with an offer that would strike most of us as patently refusable: "The Bible runs as little as $49.95," the heart of the pitch goes, "and we have three plans on it." Fifty years on, scenes of the men in the kitchens and living rooms of believers still sting and discomfit.
This is all shot in crisp black and white with the participants exhibiting no awareness of the cameras. The technique is transparent, in its way, which makes it doubly important to consider it as the film unfolds.