Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Albert Maysles
|Produced by||Albert Maysles
|Written by||Albert Maysles
|Edited by||David Maysles
|Distributed by||Maysles Films|
The documentary follows four salesmen as they travel across New England and southeast Florida trying to sell expensive Bibles door-to-door in low-income neighborhoods, and attend a sales meeting in Chicago. The film focuses in particular on salesman Paul Brennan, a middle-aged Irish-American Catholic from Jamaica Plain, Boston, who struggles to maintain his sales.
Interviews and the salesmen
- Jamie Baker, "The Rabbit"
- Paul Brennan, "The Badger"
- Raymond Martos, "The Bull"
- Charles McDevitt, "The Gipper"
- Kennie Turner
- Melbourne I. Feltman
- Margaret McCarron
The Maysles brothers decided they wanted to be the first to make a nonfiction feature film (which turned out to be Salesman) after learning that Truman Capote had made the claim that his newly released book In Cold Blood was a nonfiction novel. The film was made on a low budget; just under seven minutes into the film, one of the two cameras used can be seen in the shot. The handheld microphone used to record the film's sound is visible in other shots.
Salesman was self-funded by the Maysles brothers, costing approximately $100,000. The Maysles brothers paid each salesman $100, along with their expenses. During production, the crew consisted of Albert Maysles shooting and lighting and David Maysles doing sound. Albert Maysles never prompted anyone for the film, except when he asked Paul to describe his fellow salesmen. In determining who and what they were going to film, the Maysles brothers looked at the salesmen's schedules. Throughout production, the Maysles brothers sent the footage to Zwerin, who viewed the footage and provided feedback. When post-production began, David Maysles and Zwerin tried to structure a story about the four salesmen but found they did not have the material. Instead, they realized that they were dealing with a story about Paul.
The Maysles brothers had themselves been door-to-door salesmen in the past, selling everything from cosmetics to encyclopedias. While filming, they became part of the pitch, telling those who let the salesmen and the camera crew into their homes that they were now part of "a human interest story." 
Elements of popular culture that appear as backdrops to the main story include the song "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof; a recorded orchestral performance of The Beatles' song "Yesterday"; The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson; the theme music of the television series Ben Casey; and televised boxing matches.
As stated in the closing credits,
- The filming team of Albert and David Maysles went home to Boston to take another look at the kind of people they grew up with. The idea for the film was researched and developed by David Maysles[,] who found the salesmen. The photography was by Albert Maysles. The film was edited by David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin.
Salesman was filmed in January 1967 (perhaps also late December 1966) and bears a copyright date of 1968.
When Salesman was completed, there were challenges in showing the film. As the Maysles brothers tried to get distribution, they were told that the content was too depressing and realistic for the public. The Maysles brothers self-distributed through their production company, Maysles Films, and they booked theaters for screenings. The first theatrical screening occurred on April 17, 1969, at the 68th Street Playhouse in New York City.
When the film was first released, Vincent Canby, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the film and wrote, "...[the] documentary feature about four door-to-door Bible salesmen who move horizontally through the capitalistic dream. It's such a fine, pure picture of a small section of American life that I can't imagine its ever seeming irrelevant, either as a social document or as one of the best examples of what's called cinema vérité or direct cinema...It is fact, photographed and recorded with extraordinarily mobile camera and sound equipment, and then edited and carefully shaped into a kind of cinematic mural of faces, words, motel rooms, parlors, kitchens, streets, television images, radio music—even weather." Documentary filmmaker James Blue once said of Albert Maysles that, “his cinema is one in which ethics and aesthetics are interdependent, where beauty starts with honesty, where a cut or a change in camera angle can become not only a possible aesthetic error, but also a ‘sin’ against truth.” 
However, in late 1970, Pauline Kael, in her negative New Yorker review of the Maysles' subsequent documentary Gimme Shelter, alleged that Salesman was "set up" and acted by its principals, rather than actually being direct cinema. Kael accused the Maysles of "recruit[ing] Paul Brennan, who was in the roofing and siding business, to play a bible salesman". In response, the Maysles threatened suit against The New Yorker and refuted Kael's claims in an open letter sent to the magazine (which, due to The New Yorker's policy in 1970 of not publishing letters, did not appear in print until 1996 when it was included in the appendix to the anthology Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary). The letter stated, in pertinent part:
Miss Kael seems to be implying that we, as filmmakers, are responsible for the events we film by suggesting that we set them up or helped to stage them. In referring to our previous film, Salesman, Miss Kael says “the Maysles brothers recruited Paul Brennan, who was in the roof-and-siding business, to play a Bible salesman.” Paul Brennan had been selling Bibles for eight years prior to the making of our film and was selling Bibles when we met him. No actors were used in Salesman. The men were asked to simply go on doing what they normally did while we filmed. ...
We don’t know where Miss Kael got her facts. We do know that her researcher phoned Paul Brennan, one of the Bible salesmen, and told him that The New Yorker was interested in doing an article about him. He made it quite clear to her that he was a Bible salesman and not a roof-and-siding salesman when we made the film about him. Aside from his own statement, this could easily have been checked out by contacting his employers, the Mid-American Bible Company.— Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
- Salesman at the Internet Movie Database.
- Tyree, J.M. (2012). Salesman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 68.
- Rosenthal, Alan (1971). The New Documentary in Action: A Casebook in Filmmaking. Berkeley: University of CA Press. p. 82.
- Zuber, Sharon (2007). "The Force of Reality in Direct Cinema: An Interview with Albert Maysles.". Post Script - Essays in Film and the Humanities 26 (3): 6–21.
- Rosenthal, Alan (1971). The New documentary in Action: A Casebook in Film Making. Berkeley: University of California. p. 85.
- Canby, Vincent. The New York Times, film review, April 18, 1969. Last accessed: May 9, 2008
- Siskel and Ebert Top Ten Lists. Retrieved March 17, 2013.
- Kael, Pauline (December 19, 1970). "Gimme Shelter (film review)". The New Yorker (New York). Archived from the original on March 6, 2015. Retrieved October 19, 2015.
- Cousins, Mark; Macdonald, Kevin, eds. (1996). Imagining Reality: The Faber Book of Documentary. London: Faber & Faber. ISBN 978-0571177233.
- Vogels, Jonathan B. (2005). The Direct Cinema of David and Albert Maysles. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press. ISBN 978-0809326433.
- Salesman at the Internet Movie Database
- Salesman official website, MayslesFilms.com
- Salesman essay at the Criterion Collection by Toby Miller
- Salesman at DVD Beaver (includes images)
- Salesman film at Hulu