The Last Salesman

To celebrate finally getting the editing on PLASTIC underway, and the continuation of my new life of sobriety (6 days and counting) I treated myself to a black and white double. First up was the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich film THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

This is Bogdanovich’s 3rd film but the first in which he was responsible for what’s on screen from start to end. His first movie, VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN, (based on a night out in Brechin perhaps) was actually a recutting and dubbing of the Russian sci fi film STORM PLANET. Producer extraordinaire Roger Corman had bought the rights to the picture so, as he was renowned for giving hungry young filmmakers a break (we NEED a Corman in Scotland) gave the eager Bogdanovich the task of redubbing the picture into English, shooting some extra scenes with cave girls in clam shell bras and basically creating a whole new, but utterly awful movie. So bad in fact he went by the pseudonym Derek Thomas in an attempt to forever distance his name from it. All the bad press (and there’s LOTS of it) makes me want to see it.

His second, and far superior effort was the 1968 film TARGETS. Corman was again involved in this production which led to a few conditions for the director. Firstly, he had to use stock footage from the 1963 picture, THE TERROR, which Corman himself directed. Secondly, he had to hire legendary horror actor Boris Karloff for 2 days as he owed Corman some time on his contract. Bogdanivich managed to satisfy both demands to brilliant effect and produced a hugely enjoyable movie. More on that later.

THE LAST PICTURE SHOW is a coming of age tale set in a tiny Texas town that has the appearance of a place not evolved or improved since the days of the early settlers, this despite the film being set in 1951-52.

Bogdonovic was meticulous in setting up a genuine aesthetic for this picture. The cinematography of Robert Sutees creates a starkness of space that compliments the barren expanse within the minds of the townspeople. I have to stress; this is not through a lack of intelligence. The town seems to have a hold on the people that remain there. They’re all searching for someone to call their own, someone who provides a basic level of contentment, but with such a minute population to choose from, massive compromises are made to ward off the threat of being alone. There’s also no score in the movie. All the musical elements are provided by practical means: a radio that happens to be on for instance, or by someone putting a tune on the juke box. Bogdanovich was insistent that the music only be from the period of the film or before, all in the name of authenticity.

Sonny Crawford

The search for stability is the driving force of all the pictures main characters. Duane Jackson (Played by a very young Jeff Bridges) has the best looking, or the single good looking girl in town Jacy Farrow. (Cybil Shepherd in her first role) Jacy does not reciprocate his feelings leaving the boy in a constant state of confusion and frustration that leads to him leaving town. Jacy herself has no clue what she wants. Being pretty, she has her choice but when the guy she wants gets married, she has to find another man quick for fear of ending up on the scrap heap. She has a liaison with the man her mother is having an affair with then ends up with Sonny Crawford, Duane’s best friend but again, this is not without upset. Sonny has a confusing search throughout the picture. Timothy Bottoms plays the part incredibly as Sonny goes from disappointment to disappointment but remains resolute and dignified. The strong writing brings a recognisable conclusion to everyone’s journey although not all are successful.

Jacy Farrow

This is a picture of huge complexity considering the setting and people we are dealing with. The human condition is delicately explored with the subtle strengths and weaknesses of the individuals being gently explored with great skill.

The film won 2 Oscars for the great supporting cast and was nominated for another 5. It was also the catalyst for the coming together of Bogdanovich and Cybil Shepherd, a famous Hollywood scandal.

My first exposure to the Maysles brothers work was about 15 years ago via a horrifically fuzzy VHS copy of the 1970 film GIMME SHELTER which featured The Rolling Stones notorious concert at the Altamont speedway in 1969. This is a gripping piece of documentary. Not only does it display what can go wrong when you hire the Hell’s Angels to do your security (Who’s idea was that?) but it also documents the end of the Hippy era. There was no free love at Altamont, only bad acid and outpourings of violence which in some cases, proved fatal.

Two years earlier they’d been in slightly less drug crazed company to make the documentary SALESMAN. For anyone who’s had to sell anything in their time (I certainly have) this film feels as relevant today as it did when it was made. The pressures that go with the job, the frequently uncomfortable interactions with the general public as you try to get money out of them face to face and the destructive effect of losing your belief are all on show in this gloriously honest picture.

The movie follows 4 salesmen round the United States. They’re in the bible business which means the word of god can be paid up at $1 a week. Like any sales environment, there are people who are more successful than others and it’s this competition, disguised as an honourable effort to spread the word of god, which is the most interesting element.

The clip below shows Paul, the films main protagonist and character having most trouble with the job, out on a couple of sits. Look out for the way he tries to turn people around, the faces of the people being sold to are especially wonderful. I watch this and immediately think of Jack Lemmon in the film GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. You wonder if he watched this picture while preparing to bring Shelley “The Machine” Levene to life.


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