Salesman, a film as exploitative as the practices it tries to expose, continues to sell audiences on that which looks like penetrating social commentary, but which is nothing more than anti-social non-commentary on a subject too far from our hearts to bring tears to our eyes….
[The] only truly engrossing moment in Salesman is the one time that a conscious "dramatization" does take place, when the salesmen and their supervisor are "acting out" a hypothetical sales situation for self-instructive purposes. Here the supervisor plays the salesman, the salesmen play resistive clients, and men are engaged in the practices of their profession. Brennan and his associates are most interesting, most animated, when they are not themselves, and unintentionally this segment of the film makes as strong a case against Cinema Verité and its untarnished reality as I have seen….
If the grainy images and noisy soundtrack of Salesman are too real to be true, it is perhaps a loophole in subject and attitude which clinches the film's objective emptiness. Salesman is a film about failure…. What are the insights in the point of view presented here? Obviously the revelations of the camera are applicable to any professional in any income bracket, and would be, in fact, more pointed and more poignant if seen in the framework of the really "big" businessmen in America, who revel in what looks like success. What value judgment is being made? Are we to believe that a salesman whose two necessities are 1) making a living and 2) justifying the means of that living is any "worse" than any other human being who is similarly compromising? Admittedly a film which instead dealt with the emptiness of success would be an encyclopedia of clichés, but a film about the failure of failure of failure is even less amusing and far less important. There is nothing funny, or sad, or even interesting in a chronicle of the lives of people in dull, competitive, empty professions who do indeed turn out to be dull, competitive and empty people. There are such, and they are, in Salesman, as particularly unexciting on film as they are in life.
S. F., "'Salesman'" (©, 1969, by Spectator International, Inc.; copyright reassigned to the Author; ©, 1980, by the Kilimanjaro Corporation), in Cinema, Vol. 5, No. 2, 1969, p. 46.