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Capitalism Meets Religion in Salesman’s Opening Pitch

The opening scene in any documentary is crucial. Within minutes the filmmakers must establish, even for the most unfamiliar of viewers, the key subjects and setting, a set of traits, necessary exposition and background, and, ideally, one or more the film’s key themes. Bing Liu’s 2018 Minding the Gap is one example of a contemporary documentary that stages a skateboarding scene for precisely these purposes and does so brilliantly. Like it, the 1969 classic of American Direct Cinema, the Maysles brothers’ Salesman, accomplishes all this—and more—in its brief but incredibly informative and compelling opening sequence.

The Maysles’ approach to filmmaking, alongside their contemporaries D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman, was shaped by their work with Robert Drew and Associates. Drew, a Life magazine correspondent to filmmaking in the late ‘50s, had hoped to revitalize documentary filmmaking, which he felt was uninspired, with new style and vibrancy, and assembled a team of all stars, including Pennebaker, the Maysles, and Richard Leacock. His 1960 film Primary, based on the group’s close access to John F. Kennedy, first on the campaign trail and then in the Oval Office, used its portable camera and audio recording gear to famously follow the future President to the lectern, a signature move copied by Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back and parodied by Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (and included in nearly every rockumentary in between and since).

What that follow-the-subject style allowed was a breathtaking kind of close-up intimacy unprecedented in documentary filmmaking. Such was the promise of the American Direct Cinema movement. Employing then-new-to-filmmaking lightweight, portable cameras capable of shooting in low-lit conditions, and equally lightweight sound equipment with synchronous capabilities, these practitioners aspired to record events as if the subject and audience both were largely unaware of the camera’s presence: Bill Nichols calls the this “fly-on-wall” approach the “observational mode” and in its purest form—such as in Salesman—it completely eschews any direct address (staged interviews), filmmaker intervention, nondiegetic information (such as title cards), or narration (objective or subjective, voice-over or textual). Or, for that matter, anything that was not or could not have been directly, synchronously recorded.

Direct Cinema is often conflated with Cinéma Vérité, but the latter tends to involve more stylized set-ups and significant interaction between the filmmaker and the subject, even to the point of provocation; the Maysles’ approach was more, shall we say, passive in its observation, though no less intentional. Albert Maysles ran the single camera, David the sound recording. They were, in the making of Salesman, a two-man recording team, following their subjects to record them in the environments where they worked. The two had both earned psychology degrees from Boston University before their time at Drew, and eventually formed their own production company.

The Maysles’ approach was to separate the camera from the sound recording device, allowing the two devices to be moved independently with respect to each other. Albert built his own 16mm camera that could be balanced on his shoulder, eliminating the need for a tripod, allowing him to shoot fluidly in the moment. The footage would then need to be edited—sometimes, as the film’s opening scene demonstrates, substantially—to make the most efficient narrative sense. Charlotte Zwerin, also of the Drew group, had co-directing credit on Salesman and Gimme Shelter, and her post-production work as is vital to the Maysles’ work as that which the brothers filmed and recorded.

In Salesman, Albert and David follow a team of door-to-door salesmen as they travel across New England and southeast Florida peddling expensive illustrated Bibles. Both Maysles brothers had sold various items door-to-door and were looking for subjects whom they could observe doing so (whatever the object being sold) in a filmic equivalent to Truman Capote’s recent “nonfiction novel” In Cold Blood. The film was self-funded to the tune of approximately $10,000 and would eventually focus primarily on one of the four salesmen, Paul “The Badger” Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Catholic from Boston, who becomes one of the signature characters of American film.

The film’s opening scene is masterfully shot by Albert with intentional sound by David and edited to perfection by Zwerin. It’s a textbook example of just how efficiently and effectively the Direct-Cinema approach could introduce a subject. Within just two minutes, and without any overt narration, nondiegetic music, titles, interviews, or text, viewers will know all that they need to in terms of exposition and much about the film’s protagonist in terms of characterization. The scene connects religion with capitalism in ways that remain today, more than 50 years later, unsettling.

It begins with what we now call a “cold open”: no exterior establishing shot or titles, just an extreme close-up of the subject matter, the lavishly illustrated glossy hardback bible, then an apparently arthritic male hand gently caressing its pages, and the unknown voice of a male we might at first mistakenly assume to be a “voice-of-God” omniscient narrator, gravely intoning:

The best seller of all time is the Bible, for one reason. It’s the greatest piece of literature of all time.

Interestingly, it’s almost as if the Maysles-Zwerin team wants to play with the very notion of objective narration, to let viewers assume that what they are watching might be a more traditionally expository documentary guided by an unseen, unknown omniscient narrator. But there is in this Bible story no “voice of God” to speak of. Instead, it’s a slightly deceptive audio cut that occludes the speaker’s identity, which we will soon learn to be that of the salesman Paul.

Two images from Salesman: a close-up of a holy Bible, then of a male hand turning its pages.
Salesman opens “cold” with an extreme close-up of the lavishly illustrated glossy hardback bible, then opened by a male hand gently caressing its pages.

The next image is of a more traditional establishing interior three-shot of Paul continuing to fondle the pages as his “mark,” a young housewife, and her daughter watch. We see him speak:

It’s really tremendous, isn’t it?

The audio is now a bit more “live” sounding with a slight hissy quality in comparison to the first lines. The audible difference suggests the former might have been recorded in post-production. And though subtle, it’s the first telling cut of many that suggest just how many different takes, angles, shots and choices comprise this deceptively complex scene.

Images from Salesman: Paul "The Badger" Brennan in a living room with a housewife and her daughter.
Multiple camera angles make clear that the one-camera shoot had to include reshoots or restagings of specific events.

From here, Albert slowly pans out from the medium close-up to a medium wide shot from Paul’s right. Here we see a bit more of the family’s drab environs. The mother sits in a stiff wooden rocking chair, her daughter standing next to her, both of them gazing like Paul at his wares plied on the small, inexpensive metal table in front of them. Like the mother and daughter both, the room is a bit unkempt, with various toys and blankets strewn about, curtains ruffled.

A series of cuts that follows provides further insights, both to the sale and to the Maysles-Zwerin process. There is a cut to a close-up of Paul fondling the product-Bible’s pages again, but this time from a different perspective, one more centered and facing him directly. Remember, Albert Maysles filmed this and the entirety of the film with just one camera: this shot must have been set up and recorded separately from the prior one.

The child, now seated in her mother’s lap, reaches out to touch the pages, and Paul makes an attempt at ingratiation. “She’s pretty like her mother. Christine.” He tousles her hair. “You know what my name is? Paul.” Then, a second time, a little louder: “Paul.” Though the daughter, Christine, evidently could care less—the salesman’s charisma is lacking—the film has named its protagonist subtly here, in the process also establishing his line of work and sales approach.

Images from Salesman: a close-up of Paul fondling the Bible and another of little Christine, the housewife's daughter.
Zwerin cuts from a close-up of Paul fondling the Bible to another of daughter Christine.

The cutting continues, this time to a close-up of daughter Christine—again from behind Paul’s left shoulder, in a pattern now approximating that of the alternating shot/reverse-shot of fictional dialogue scenes, gazing intently as Paul talks. Albert quickly pans out again to reveal Christine in her mother’s lap and the back of Paul’s head in the frame as Paul begins his hard sell:

The Bible runs as little as $49.95. And we have three plans on it.

Christine yawns, ostentatiously. She’s not interested. Again here, we don’t see Paul’s face as he talks, so this particular reaction, so perfectly timed, may be edited to synchronize with his brief pause. But the salesman is undeterred, and his mention of “three plans” is a time-tested technique of his and his troupe’s, as the later events of Salesman will prove. Get the prospective customer to commit to anything—one of the three plans, a color, a cover—and use it as the foot in the door, so to speak, the indication of a commitment that will initiate the sale.

Images from Salesman: Christine yawns, Paul gestures to the mother.
As Christine yawns, Paul makes his pitch.

The three plans are cash, C.O.D. (“Cash on Delivery,” for you young’uns), and what Paul calls “a little Catholic honor plan.” Another cut, back to the more centered perspective facing all three characters, shows Christine now wriggling and writhing uncomfortably in her mother’s lap, desperate to escape the torture of Paul’s failing pitch. The camera cuts to Paul again as he shoots his shot:

Which plan would be the best for you? The A, B, or C?

He asks, waving his left hand in a futile, random gesture. His body language, slumped in his chair, legs crossed, clothes rumpled, connotes a lack of confidence. The second the mother begins to speak, Paul breaks eye contact and looks away resignedly. He’s heard words like hers before:

I’m really not interested.

The housewife could not be more clear, citing she can’t make this decision without her husband, and given the social mores and distributions of domestic labor and economic responsibility at the time, I’m sure her concern was genuine. In today’s dollars, according to the U.S. Inflation Calculator, that $49.99 illustrated Bible would cost nearly $380!  The camera cuts again, now to her, as Paul desperately tries an end-around.

He wouldn’t like a surprise? Doesn’t have a birthday coming up?

As Paul speaks offscreen, little Christine wriggles away, bored with the pitch.

Images from Salesman: Christine wriggles away from her mother; the mother looks at the ground.
Paul’s pitch is met with an unambiguous response: “I’m really not interested.”

The camera cuts again to a close-up of Paul fondling the Bible—the fourth such we’ve seen in less than two minutes—and he leans back into the comfort of his initial pitch:

The Bible’s still the best-seller in the world.

As we hear him complete his sentence—and remember, any offscreen audio can be edited to sync with any image—the camera cuts once again to Christine.

Images from Salesman: another close-up of Paul fondling the piano; Christine plunks a note on the piano.
As the camera cuts from Paul fondling the Bible (again), Christine plunks out four descending, discordant notes on the piano.

Albert Maysles’ instincts here are, frankly, brilliant. The little girl walks to the small spinet piano and promptly plunks out four descending, discordant notes from right to left on the keyboard. Loud and harsh, they serve a perfect aural accompaniment to the mother’s final rejection of Paul’s pitch:

I just can’t afford it now.

As the mother speaks, the notes play. They function exactly as a modernist nondiegetic score might had it been commissioned and composed for the occasion. Their descending, discordant nature matches the sour, downbeat defeat Paul experiences.

A final cut is to Paul, in close-up, his eyes looking downward, the age lines creasing his face more visible than in any prior shot. A waft of smoke spirals up at his left. He grimaces and licks his lips as the one bit of nondiegetic material used in Salesman appears to his right: “Paul Brennan” and underneath it, fading in second, his nickname: “The Badger.”

Images from Salesman: Paul's nickname "The Badger" appears and then fades as he licks his lips.
Paul’s nickname appears and then fades as the uncomfortable salesman licks his lips in defeat.

With this unceremonious defeat the Maysles brothers and editor Charlotte Zwerin have cemented their introduction of their central character. By the end of the first full minute, we have learned that Paul is selling an unwanted product to an uninterested subject in an unsuccessful and even unscrupulous manner.  This may not have been the first sale the Maysles shot, but it makes for a great opening to the film. Their Salesman deconstructs America’s gnarled connection between two of its fundamental obsessions—capitalism and religion—and this opening scene has Paul and the company he represents dependent upon selling a product in the name of religion to those who cannot afford it. It’s a zero-sum game: for the salesman to win, the consumer has to lose. Or vice versa.

The opening credits then continue. Paul’s nickname, “The Badger,” is, excuse me, a godawful nickname, but it’s appropriate for a salesman who gets his sales by badgering people. The others—the “Bull,” the “Rabbit,” the “Gipper”—get much briefer introductions as they are in comparison to Paul minor characters. They are shown at different hours of the day (these salesmen work long hours!), using different tactics, exploiting their marks’ faith, and on occasion, meeting with at least a little success as “The Bull” leaves a house with a successful sale.

Images from Salesman: Charles McDevitt "The Gipper" and James Baker "The Rabbit" are introduced.
The other salesmen are quickly introduced.
Images from Salesman: Raymond Martos "The Bull" and the film's title card reading "The Maysles Brothers' Salesman"
Raymond Martos closes a sale and the film’s title card is introduced.

The film title card comes at 2:50, crediting the brothers above the title before the motel room scene where the group compares their successes with their sales manager. Paul is down on his luck, a bit desperate, and the sequence concludes a medium shot of Paul alone as the manager says (in a J-cut to the next scene of the sales meeting, staying first still on Paul alone):

There’s money to be made in the Bible business. It’s fabulous business, it’s a good business, and all I can say to people who aren’t making the money is, it’s their fault.

The associative editing makes clear: Paul is a loser, he is at fault, is failure is due to his own ineptitude, and others can and will pass him by. The “money to be made in the bible business” will be made by others.

Images from Salesman: Paul in his motel room, the sales manager at a meeting.
As the sales manager speaks, the audio plays over a close-up of Paul, suggesting the words apply directly to the salesman.

The goal of Direct Cinema may be to make the viewer feel like an observer, a fly on the wall if you will, but that’s only through the very careful work of arranging cameras, recording sound, and masterful editing employed together. Charlotte Zwerin’s editing earned her the relatively rare distinction of being credited as co-director of the film, such was the importance of her craft to their success.

If you haven’t seen it, the Documentary Now! episode Globesman uncannily replicates each angle, edit, and sound of Salesman‘s opening scene—and that’s in addition to its masterful recreation of mise-en-scene. Watch it and the Maysles-Zwerin technical genius becomes even more readily apparent. Another recent analogue might be The Beatles: Get Back. Although Peter Jackson and his editor Jabez Olssen were not present to record the original footage, and although they do include some nondiegetic and expository content, most of that series’ eight-hour runtime consists of carefully-edited observational footage designed, in the Direct-Cinema tradition, to bring the viewer into the room to experience what happened as it happened.

And that is exactly the aim of Salesman‘s opening scene. Not only does it perfectly exemplify how filmmakers create character with actions, gestures, expressions, words, sounds, and even diegetic music. It also illustrates just how carefully even the most purely observational of footage must be edited for effect. The result is one of the great classics not just of documentary generally, of Direct Cinema in particular, but of all American art. Salesman asks us to contemplate the tenuous, tentacular relationship of religion to capitalism. It’s a connection that remains relevant today: just watch the brilliant docuseries LuLa Rich to see one example of the profound influence of religion on free markets—and the belief in free markets as a form of religion itself.

The days of door-to-door may be long gone, replaced by Instagram-influenced multi-level marketing schemes, but the influence of religion on capitalism, just as Salesman told us fifty-plus years ago, remains powerful as powerful as this masterpiece of Direct Cinema’s opening scene.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Publisher of Film Obsessive. A professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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