This radically influential portrait of American dreams and disillusionment from Direct Cinema pioneers David Maysles, Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin captures, with indelible humanity, the worlds of four dogged door-to-door Bible salesmen as they travel from Boston to Florida on a seemingly futile quest to sell luxury editions of the Good Book to working-class Catholics. A vivid evocation of midcentury malaise that unfolds against a backdrop of cheap motels, smoky diners, and suburban living rooms, Salesman assumes poignant dimensions as it uncovers the way its subjects’ fast-talking bravado masks frustration, disappointment, and despair. Revolutionizing the art of nonfiction storytelling with its nonjudgmental, observational style, this landmark documentary is one of the most penetrating films ever made about how deeply embedded consumerism is in America’s sense of its own values.
The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous DVD edition of Albert and David Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin’s Salesman to Blu-ray, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on a dual-layer disc. The film has been given 1080p/24hz high-definition encode and has been taken from a new 4K restoration performed by The Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation. This new restoration was primarily sourced from the 16mm A/B camera negative. A 16mm fine-grain print and a 35mm duplicate negative were also used to fill in for places where the original negative was too far gone to be of use.
The final presentation on this disc is nothing short of incredible, looking sharp, crisp, and shockingly clean. The old DVD wasn’t terrible by any means, but, as one would probably expect, it was littered with marks, tears, and other bits of damage, while the source print, at times, could look a bit dupey or washed out. Most of those issues are gone in this new restoration, damage almost non-existent (just a handful of marks here and there), and the image is far sharper, grain looking especially remarkable itself. The level of detail is really beyond what I was expecting, and it remains consistent throughout, with only a few moments looking a bit off due to the original photography. Grayscale also looks incredible, with smooth grading, and both blacks and whites look exceptional as well.
As mentioned there are a couple of marks but they’re easy to overlook, and there are a few shots where grain doesn’t look as fine, getting a bit heavier (and it’s more than likely because the sequences were sourced from one of the other prints and not the negative), but overall this is incredibly clean. I know restoration work has come a long way in the past few years, and what can be done is truly mind-blowing, but I was not expecting the clean image we get here.
For what it is, the soundtrack—presented in lossless PCM 1.0 monaural—is pretty good. Dialogue is easy to hear, fidelity isn’t too bad, and damage is non-existent. But there can be a flatness at times, and there is a slight edge to things here and there, but I attribute this to the source materials and how it was filmed (using synched-sound cameras), along with its off-the-cuff nature.
Criterion upgrades their previous DVD edition to Blu-ray and carries most of the material over, though not all of it, while adding a fun new supplement. From the original DVD is the 2001 audio commentary featuring filmmakers Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, who were 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), how they went about selecting and then 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 they 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 bible, of all things. 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 personal bias. The track ends up being both entertaining and engaging on its own.
To follow this up, Criterion then 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.
In a fun addition Criterion next includes the full 25-minute spoof Globesman, from a 2016 episode of Documentary Now! For anyone not familiar with the show, it’s the brain child of comedians Seth Meyers, Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, and Rhys Thomas, and every season features around six episodes either spoofing a documentary specifically, like a spoof of Grey Gardens called Sandy Passage (which, almost too easily turns into a found-footage horror film), or a certain “genre” of documentary, like the “hard-hitting” kind of exposé that Vice might do, or one of those documentaries featuring a protagonist looking for something, only accidentally making the film more about themselves than the subject they’re intending to cover.
When the episode is spoofing a documentary specifically they really capture the look and feel to a staggering degree, and this episode really does capture Salesman remarkably well, recreating the look, the flow, and some similar uncomfortable situations, though played for laughs this time around. Hader and Armisen end up being the two main characters, two salesmen peddling globes and having a rough time at it, though Hader’s manages to find some success while Armisen’s is just getting beat down (though it probably doesn’t help that he says inappropriate things around prospects, like pointing out to a father how attractive his underage daughter is). It’s funny, managing to pull some laughs out of some of the more painful and absurd moments in Salesman, like the meeting where everyone tries to one-up each other on sales numbers, while also creating an engaging set of characters and story.
The feature is certainly a fun one, but it also ends up (maybe accidentally) serving another purpose, like highlighting the filmmaking style of the film and its technical achievements. This is all pointed out in a new interview with Bill Hader, who, for 9-minutes, talks a little bit about Documentary Now! and the level of research they put into each episode. How this particular episode came to be was more of a “why not” situation than anything passionate (they had actually intended to spoof another documentary but didn’t think it would work), yet Hader explains how they really studied the film and its nuances, and he shares the finer points he picked up on, most admiring their natural ability in just knowing where to point the camera. His admiration of it has obviously gone up since and he appears to be overjoyed to be talking about it here.
Another supplement ported over from the DVD is 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 of his dad. 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.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer, and Criterion also includes an insert featuring a new essay by Michael Chaiken, who covers the film’s background and offers a bit more context around the time period after the war and the growth and fall of the door-to-door salesman. This replaces Toby Miller’s short essay that was included with the DVD edition. Criterion also didn’t carry over an extensive photo gallery that was found on the DVD, which offered photos of the subjects working along with behind-the-scenes photos showing the filmmakers following their subjects around while trying to stay out of the way. The DVD also featured filmographies for the filmmakers, but in the age where IMDB is more prevalent, it’s admittedly pretty useless.
The photos are missed but this is otherwise a really good special edition, offering a well-rounded look into the making of the film, its subject matter, and the filmmaking style employed, and I do get a kick out of the fact they found it worthwhile to included the Documentary Now! spoof.
A fantastic upgrade over the DVD edition, offering an sharp looking presentation, most of the same excellent supplements, and the added bonus of the Documentary Now! spoof of the film, Globesman. An easy recommendation.