(director: Albert and David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin; cinematographer: Albert Maysles; editors: David Maysles/Charlotte Zwerin; cast: Paul Brennan (Himself – ‘The Badger’), Charles McDevitt (Himself – ‘The Gipper’), James Baker (Himself – ‘The Rabbit’), Raymond Martos (Himself – ‘The Bull’), Melbourne I. Feltman (Himself, theological consultant); Runtime: 90; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Albert and David Maysles; The Criterion Collection; 1969)

“This up close look at the anxious Bible salesmen trying to close the deal has become a cult classic documentary.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Albert and David Maysles’ (“Grey Gardens”/”Gimme Shelter”) cinema vérité documentary has a camera crew in 1968 follow a team of four real-life Boston-based Bible salesmen for the Mid-American Bible Company as they do their selling of their $49.95 product by going door-to-door. Most of their selling is to low-income and poorly educated Catholic families. It’s a pathetic story about religion reduced to materialism as the aggressive Bible salesmen prey on the vulnerable to persuade them to buy a product they are reluctant to purchase. This engaging look at hungry Bible salesmen in action who are not adverse to lying to make a sale contrasts to the sanctimonious hyper-boles set forth by the industry speakers at a sales convention in Chicago. It mocks the gullible public, the untrustworthy salesmen and the competitive concepts of capitalism that drives the human condition in America. This up close look at the anxious Bible salesmen trying to close the deal has become a cult classic documentary. The salesmen are not concerned about anything but selling as many Bibles as they can, which says a lot about our consumerism culture that we don’t often hear in such an open way.

The four salesmen are Paul Brennan, ‘The Badger’, Charles McDevitt, ‘The Gipper’, James Baker, ‘The Rabbit’, and Raymond Martos, ‘The Bull’. The central character is Brennan; the film’s heart goes out to this fallen soul who sings to himself the signature lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof “If I were a rich man” while making his rounds in the snow. Brennan hits a dry spell and it’s pitiful to watch the Irish American’s decline from a once successful salesman to one who has now lost his enthusiasm for selling to his potential clients and the realization that he’s not cut out for the job.

The movie is an easy sell even though the door-to-door salesmen has all but become a thing of the past in contemporary America. In the end, the film shows that the salesmen are just as vulnerable as their clients and perhaps even deserve just as much compassion. Though its story is not a complete one (the personal lives of the men were barely touched upon), it does leave some kind of a social document as a footnote to a passing history that has made way for telemarketing scams.


REVIEWED ON 1/21/2007   GRADE: B+