1968. Directed by Albert and David Maysles.
The men employed by the Mid-America Bible Company have a product that belongs in every home, and comes complete with the blessing of Pope Paul. It should be easy to sell, but the good men followed on their calls in this amazing documentary face closing doors, customers unwilling to commit to a payment plan, and a sales manager who is “sick and tired of being sick and tired of their excuses.” I first saw the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman back in college, but its portrayal of despondent, chain-smoking, cynical door-to-door salesmen has stuck with me.
There’s the Badger, a wornout Irish everyman who sings “If I Were A Rich Man” while he’s out selling overpriced Bibles; the Rabbit, a nervous, fast-talking rookie; the Bull, a relatively successful doughy white guy (to use MST3K parlance); and the Gipper, a craggy, greasy-haired veteran who knows how to bear down on a squirming prospect.
To most people, this film will seem like science fiction: strangers going door-to-door, conniving their way inside homes, and forcing the occupants to endure a scattershot sales pitch, while swatting away excuses like bills, lack of money, and uncertain futures. (The image of salesmen lighting up their cigarettes without asking permission is strange enough.) Someone trying a similar hard sell today would lucky to get out of that home alive.
There are some nearly unbearable scenes. The Badger pushes and pushes a sale to a young housewife, who tries to reject the offer from its beginning. There is the couple who want the $49.95 Bible for their young child, but who cannot afford the $1 a week payment plan — the Gipper sends the very “devout” Badger (pretending to be the sales manager) to collect the downpayment. Nearly every sales call is uncomfortable, and as the salesmen reunite in their shared hotel room to compare their efforts, they all seem to wish to die in their sleep.
But the worst scene may be the sales conference in which a “theological consultant” tells the smoke-filled room of salesmen that Jesus did “his father’s work,” and that they are too — not through the dollars and cents they pry out of some devout-but-poor hands, but through spreading the word of God through the unnecessarily expensive books. The fact that they can state they are “from the church” and visiting with the permission of the local church makes one want to puke.
In Salesman’s closing scene, that’s exactly what it looks like the Badger — facing an uncertain future after a string of failed pitches — is about to do.