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Friday, November 9, 2007

A Smile and a Shoeshine, Part 1 (originally published 6/00)

The world of commerce is driven by sales, which in turn necessitates the employment of salespeople. Some of these salespeople are what we might call passive, in that they mainly take orders from customers who already want to buy. The other type of salesperson is faced with the challenge of drumming up business by converting people who don't yet know they want the product into paying customers. This second type of sales job requires a person of a specific temperament, a kind of extroverted and undauntable personality that some of us find downright grating.

It is this second kind of salesperson that moviemakers have frequently seized upon, making him (it's usually a male character) into one of the most familiar of stereotypical stock characters in the dramatic repertoire. The challenge for dramatic filmmakers has been to transcend the stereotype in portraying salespeople, a challenge most recently taken up by the producers of "The Big Kahuna," in which Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, and Peter Facinelli play industrial lubricant salesmen on the trail of a hot client. If you're curious to see how earlier films have represented the lives of salespeople, look for these titles on home video.

"Double Indemnity" (1944). In this classic adaptation of the dark and cynical James M. Cain novel, Fred MacMurray plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman who has gotten in over his head. Having become infatuated with an attractive but cold-hearted woman (played by Barbara Stanwyck), Neff allows himself to be drawn into a plot to murder the woman's husband in order to collect on his insurance policy. This is the stereotype of the scheming, underhanded salesman taken to its extreme. In other hands, the material might have been absurd, but with Cain's original story adapted for the screen by Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder, and Wilder directing, the result was one of the most acclaimed films of the period.

"Death of a Salesman" (1985). The granddaddy of all plays about salesmen is, of course, Arthur Miller's enduring portrait of Willy Loman. Having spent a lifetime out there in the jungle on nothing but "a smile and a shoeshine," Loman is forced, very much against his will, to give in to pangs of regret. With both his career and his family crumbling around him, he must face at last the attrition that has worn away at his life, knowing that it is too late to do anything about it. The definitive 1951 film version, starring Fredric March in the lead role, is unavailable on video, but the 1985 remake with Dustin Hoffman is also quite good.

"Pennies From Heaven" (1978). One of the most interesting musicals ever made is this British mini-series from the pen of talented screenwriter Dennis Potter. Set in London in the Thirties, it tells the story of sheet music salesman Arthur Parker, played by Bob Hoskins. As we follow him through a series of business and personal problems, the characters periodically launch into song, lip-synching to period recordings. No amount of description can possibly do justice to this imaginative work. Trust me: it's worth seeing. If you have trouble finding the original series, you might look instead for the 1981 American remake of the same title, which stars Steve Martin. Much is lost due to the condensation of the story, of course, but enough of the atmosphere remains intact to make it worthwhile.

"Glengarry Glen Ross" (1992). Although successful salespeople can live wealthy and happy lives, there is nothing more pathetic than a salesman who, for whatever reason, just can't move the merchandise. Next to "Death of a Salesman," the most relentlessly brutal drama I know of on that subject is playwright David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross." Its basic premise is simple and diabolical. The frustrated sales staff of a small time real estate office is told that they will participate in a sales contest. The catch is that those who come in last will lose their jobs. As desperation sets in, the distraught men are driven to extreme measures. The stellar cast includes Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Alan Arkin, and Kevin Spacey.

Not all portrayals of salespeople on the screen are as grim as these, however. In fact, there are probably more comic films about the sales profession than there are heavy dramas. Next week we'll take a look at the lighter side of selling.

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