Salesman (1968) is one of those films that got referenced a bit in texts I had back in film school, and has certainly endured, but not with the same level of notoriety as the Maysles Bros. most famous film, Grey Gardens. But, dang, if this isn't a pretty amazing bit of film.
A documentary following a team of door-to-door Bible salesmen working first in New England and then in Florida, it feels like the predecessor to not only reality TV shows covering people at work (and I don't mean "unscripted" shows, but the more documentary approach that seems to have fallen by the wayside) but also to the world of films like Glengarry Glen Ross, complete with the archetypes that would fill that movie and others like it.
You can't figure why some guys can close a sale and some guys can't, and you're always asking people who don't have money to hand over what they've got for something that's a luxury item, or at least maybe not a practical necessity. In this movie we're seeing Bibles going for $30 - $50 in 1968, when the customers on camera are obviously doing the math regarding what the impact of the expense will have on the weekly budget. They aren't in the homes of high-rollers, they're in middle to lower middle-class homes of working people of the era.
The salesmen are selling the book of faith, but the religion is the sale. The supervisors expect sales slips, they don't want any backtalk, and they gladly point out how they've cleared out a few people for their attitude alone. At night in depressing motor-lodge rooms, the salesmen come back to drink and smoke and sort out what's happening - they require the faithful as a customer base, and they know what buttons to push, but they're not selling with the zeal of evangelists - they're looking to see what it will take to put you into a new Bible today.
The movie is a fascinating record of a particular time and place and what people were like. But it remains relevant as the pressure to produce, to deliver of anyone who ever had a job, and you see how different personalities approach the same problem with varying results - but there's no real clarity to why "The Bull" succeeds where "The Badger" can't get a break. The desire to get ahead and to dream of doing well gives way to worrying about survival in a world where success or failure are mercurial even to the people in the thick of things.
It's powerful stuff, and neither begins nor ends neatly. I can't really recommend the movie enough. Give a chance if you have the opportunity.