The blacklist strikes back as both writer Ben Maddow and director Martin Ritt examine the booming ’50s phenomenon of The Suburbs. No money up front will get you into an ‘estate’ of your dreams, provided you’re white. Possibly a little too direct in its messaging of sickness in the American dream, much of what we see in the ticky-tacky subdivision of Sunrise Hills will ring true to those of us who lived it.
No Down Payment
1957 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 101 min. / Street Date April 17, 2018 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Joanne Woodward, Sheree North, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Cameron Mitchell, Patricia Owens, Barbara Rush, Pat Hingle, Robert H. Harris, Aki Aleong, Charles Herbert, Mimi Gibson.
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Film Editor: Lois R. Loeffler
Original Music: Leigh Harline
Written by Philip Yordan, front for Ben Maddow; from the book by John McPartland
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by Martin Ritt
“My daddy won’t go to hell now, will he?”
The very welcome No Down Payment offers a great ensemble cast and plenty of sordid excitement for upscale soap fans. It hasn’t been seen as much as producer Jerry Wald’s other ‘rip the lid off the scandal’ epic Peyton Place, made the same year. Did TV bookers not like the notion of a normal housewife in a ‘nice’ community being raped by her own neighbor? It’s director Martin Ritt’s second feature assignment after his drama about union corruption Edge of the City, adapted from a TV play. Tainted by association with activities that the HUAC found subversive, Ritt made it his business to find projects wrapped in social criticism.
The shadow of the blacklist looms behind a false credit: Philip Yordan signed the movie, but the impressive Ben Maddow adapted the John McPartland novel about social anxiety in the suburbs. A web of new concrete freeways brings us to a deceptively placid roadside billboard:
“A Better Place for Better Living”
Electronics engineer David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and his wife Jean (Patricia Owens) move into a new home in Sunrise Hills Estates and meet their new neighbors. Hardware store manager Herman Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush) seem fairly stable, but Herman has a problem at work — his best employee Iko (Aki Aleong) has been locked out of good housing because he’s Japanese, and neither Herman nor his churchgoing wife feels comfortable challenging the status quo. Gas station owner Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife Leola (Joanne Woodward) suffer from feelings of inferiority due to their humble roots in Tennessee. A much-decorated veteran, Troy has hung his hopes on being appointed the new Police Chief. More obviously unstable is the alcoholic used car salesman Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall). Jerry is jeopardizing his marriage to Isabelle (Sheree North) by buying things with money he doesn’t have, and spinning his wheels with unrealistic notions of instant success. One of the first things David hears from his across-the-fence neighbors is that nobody in Sunrise Hills can afford to live there. It’s partly a joke and partly true.
The entertaining No Down Payment puts some teeth into ‘fifties scenarios about changing times. The modest American middle class has ballooned since the end of the war. Working class families that once lived in tenements or with their parents can now buy homes of their own. The social pressure to appear prosperous seems to warp everyone’s perceptions. The upwardly mobile set is almost exclusively white, so the conversion of the vast outskirts of Los Angeles into new housing is also something of a white flight situation. Developers found clever ways not to sell to minorities. New buyers did not object because of social pressure and fear tactics about a negative effect on property values. Most bought into the new hypocrisy.
The new denizens of Sunrise Hills are two reasonably stable couples and two others heading into trouble. None of the women work. Jean perhaps pushes David too hard, encouraging him to make more money by advancing from research to sales. Betty voices strong objections when Herman talks about going out on a limb to help his employee Iko. Unable to curb Jerry’s drinking, Isabelle tries without success to get him to be more realistic about making a simple living wage. Leola feels isolated from her better-educated, urban peers. She drinks at home and feels guilty about the baby she gave up for adoption, before she was married. The men come home at night to celebrate their perfect lives with casual barbecues: “steak every night!” Some of them drink too much, revealing their insecurities. Isabelle can barely tolerate Jerry’s drunken flirting, while Troy begins to project his inadequacies onto Leola, finding her a no-class hick when compared to the cultured wives of his neighbors.
The acting in No Down Payment invigorates a screenplay that’s a tad too focused on its social message to be fully effective. Fox had a full roster of fine talent, and not all of it was well used. Tony Randall had starred in big color Frank Tashlin comedies but would soon take a step backward into support for Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Randall’s glib, bright comic personality is used to devastating effect to show Jerry Flagg’s coming breakdown. Seeing the booming economy around him, the salesman has unfortunately been seduced by the notion of instant success. Jerry is the life of the party until he starts groping another man’s wife. When drunk he waxes hysterical with pie-in-the-sky plans to make millions. Actually, his scheme to become a used-car broker is very astute, but forty years too too early — it sounds like a great business model for the Internet.
Cameron Mitchell had by now become a second-string baddie in Fox action pictures, with an established record molesting heroines in pictures like Garden of Evil and Hell and High Water. Mitchell’s Troy does the same thing here, but the psychology is properly established. He despises his hill country origins and resents that his sterling service record and combat glory doesn’t entitle him to become Police Chief. He also doesn’t take sufficient pride in the fact that he owns his own business, even if it isn’t glamorous. Worse, Troy’s own insecurity about his roots makes him blame his devoted Leola for holding him back.
Looking impossibly young, Pat Hingle (Splendor in the Grass, The Grifters) gives the most natural performance among the men. Hingle’s Herman Kritzer is panicked by Iko’s reasoned plea for equality. He wants to do the right thing but is well aware of the possible downside — what will his customers think? The show’s other social snags are expressed through direct dialogue, but Hingle makes the unseen white peer pressure — the rampant racism — very real. Herman’s store is part of an expanding chain, and he’ll likely move up the corporate ladder if he keeps his nose clean.
Jeffrey Hunter’s David Martin is the other stable husband. David pretty much has it made — he’s a professional with an in-demand skill in a booming industry. He’s apparently transitioning to the sales job his wife wants him to take, and his clean-cut look of integrity will likely take him far. We can see the Martins starting a family and moving out of Sunrise Hills for something better.
Under Ritt’s direction the female characters are not allowed to simply be ‘the wives.’ Barbara Rush’s Betty is graciousness personified except when it comes to her husband — her claws come out when he talks about standing up for fair housing. Betty’s biggest concern is that Herman won’t go to church, and stays home to wash his car instead. Top-billed Joanne Woodward had just starred in her career-making showcase picture The Three Faces of Eve. She does very well with the conflicted Leola, a humble but decent country girl eaten up by guilt over the baby she gave away. Leola plays up her sex attraction to Troy in a way that makes us understand that she feels she has nothing else to offer him.
Sheree North puts dignity into Isabelle, who spends the show suffering the abuse of her immature, out-of-control husband. We can see that Isabelle has no choice but to give him an ultimatum, even if it breaks up her family. Ms. North was a gifted performer who deserved more and better roles. Patricia Owens has the somewhat duller ‘newcomer’ position with Jeff Hunter, but she also deals well with a touchy character. We can see Jean trying to handle Troy’s barely disguised advances with grace and restraint. The unwritten law of the decade is for women to neither rock the boat nor admit that anything is wrong. We sympathize when Jean ends up in a vulnerable position, because there’s also a murky, malign social assumption that rape victims bear the responsibility for tempting their attackers. Ms. Owens had an interesting career — I don’t remember anyone ever singling her out as a top leading lady, but she played well opposite some of the top actors of her time: James Mason, Marlon Brando, Robert Taylor.
No Down Payment’s depiction of the phenomenon of the rush to the suburbs is fairly insightful. New neighborhoods put families in close proximity to each other, mowing lawns and (more likely than not) dealing with the shoddy plumbing and electrical work of houses built in a big hurry. Sunrise Hills is by no means a luxury subdivision. Visually, it’s a little inconsistent. Exteriors show homes with trees nicely spaced apart on curving streets, such as one might find in Orange County. The interior sets are quite different. The general specifications of the four houses are accurate — they share nearly identical floor plans, and the construction details lack character. The rooms feel boxy and cramped. The residents socialize on their back patios because it’s the only non-constricting space.
What doesn’t feel right are the cramped house lots, with fences already outfitted with gates between properties. The narrow spacing between the houses feels more like a trailer park. The designers of tract homes engineered the illusion of privacy by carefully restricting eye-lines between the houses. The picture-window view into the Boones’ bedroom makes the Martins’ view of Troy and Leola’s lovemaking seem like a joke from a Jacques Tati movie. The ‘estates’ in No Down Payment seem intentionally designed to feel like cubicles in a communal living situation. Believe me, even in our small house, we felt like we had comfort and privacy.
The film’s feeling for the semi-shared social space is less exaggerated. In the ’50s and ’60s some of us didn’t need to lock our doors. We answered the doorbell even for salesmen and solicitors, just as we always answered the telephone. Among established friends it was assumed that nobody had anything to hide. Housewives on good terms with each other might drift from one door to the next, barely knocking as they came in. On the other hand, the husbands didn’t roam about as freely; the woman’s domain was respected. Any man’s movement was noticed, and the women would be on the watch for odd behavior from rogue males like Jerry and Troy.
The social setup seems a bit odd, in that the war has been over for twelve years and the guys are still behaving like they’re just starting out. Troy is frustrated over a second career he’d like to begin, and one would think that by this time his marital battles would have been won or lost. Perhaps Jerry has had an easy ride as a salesman until now, so we wonder why he doesn’t simply cast about for a more promising job — his winning manner might make him ideal to sell pricey real estate. With both men, the drinking makes the difference. No Down Payment depicts the rampant alcohol abuse that came when the middle class imitated the Rich Folk and embraced social drinking. But the show seems unaware of prescription drug issues of the day. Only Leora seems to have serious adjustment problems to the social isolation of ’50s home life. Betty’s apparent rigidity about church attendance (what will the neighbors say?) is set up to become a marital problem, but is soon dropped.
The threat of rape was either non-existent or kept at a distance in most Hollywood movies — the perpetrators were craven criminals or primitive savages, usually. A couple years later it seemed that movie advertising posters were dominated by images of sexual jeopardy to a woman. No Down Payment is different, and perhaps more disturbing to the ‘fifties sensibility in that the rapist is not some social or racial ‘other,’ unless we’re to surmise that former Tennessee hillbillies are potential degenerates. Not stated in the film but likely to be intuited now is that Troy’s savage combat experiences in the South Pacific had an effect on his inhibitions. Plenty of soldiers came back from WW2 with severe ‘social re-integration’ problems that were mostly kept hidden.
(spoilers.) The finale is the big surprise; the resolution of multiple issues is almost ridiculously abrupt, as if the uncredited writer Maddow had to rush to the The End card. We’re tempted to find the book to see what really happens to the four couples in suburbia. Seemingly critical developments are skipped over in the final scene, which can’t be more than a few days later. We have no idea what miracle has righted Jerry’s mental compass — he’s suddenly chasing a reasonable job, like Albert Brooks at the end of Lost in America. As if by magic, the seemingly un-fixable racial discrimination conflict has vanished: Iko’s family is attending church in Sunrise Hills, indicating that they are now happy residents. A smiling Herman is there as well — with no previous hint that he’d give up washing his car on Sunday mornings. “My daddy won’t go to hell now, will he?” Herman’s son asks of the minister. Could that jarring dialogue line be an indication of the screenwriter and director’s frustration? The subdivision could be renamed ‘Compromise Hills.’
All in all, the compressed and crowded big performances might make some viewers reject No Down Payment. I think it may be Cameron Mitchell’s best film work, and Tony Randall, Pat Hingle and Joanne Woodward all accomplish things I haven’t seen them do as well elsewhere. I don’t know if the rape scene caused the show to be passed over for television airings, of if this title just happened to be skipped over in my TV market.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of No Down Payment is a flawless transfer of this ‘daring and unusual’ drama from 20th Fox. Perhaps indicating the legacy of Fox production head Darryl Zanuck, similar ‘liberal issue’ Fox pictures of the time included Bigger than Life (1956) and The Roots of Heaven (1958). The MGM drama The High Cost of Loving (1958) sketched a similar ‘corporation man’ portrait of a middle manager, convinced he’s going to be passed over for a promotion.
I didn’t see No Down Payment until an early 1980s run on Los Angeles’ innovative ‘Z’ cable channel, and even then it was pan-scanned and looked like a kinescope. The disc’s nigh-perfect B&W ‘scope image enhances the bleak art direction that makes the houses seem un-lived in, with few personal possessions in view. (The children being mostly absent helps, too.) A wide high-angle shot of the neighborhood is augmented by a matte painting that gives Sunrise Hills the appearance of sprawling on forever.
The opening montage of L.A.’s multi-level downtown freeways (no skyscrapers yet!) feels rather generic. The town business section with Troy’s service station across from Herman’s hardware store was filmed in Pacific Palisades, out on Sunset Boulevard near the beach. In 1957 that area had likely been fully settled with homes for a decade. Subdivisions like Sunrise Hills were built anywhere from 1950 to 1990, and more recently if you go fifty and sixty miles eastward. The vast spaces between Los Angeles and San Bernardino are now solid suburbs. Sometimes I dream about a distant cousin’s chicken farm that was once in the relative wilderness of Pomona, with what seemed a half-mile of giant eucalyptus trees lining the road. It surely disappeared ages ago.
The movie’s title logo recreates a design from the original book cover. Twilight Time’s presentation gives us Leigh Harline’s music score in an isolated track, along with Lionel Newman’s ersatz rock cues for the dance party scene. Why is it that studio pictures of the time saw fit to create such phony excuses for rock’n’roll? An illustrated booklet gives us Julie Kirgo’s dependably insightful liner notes. She lauds the career of Jerry Wald, and digs a bit into the film’s muted social criticism.
Some of the stars would continue playing in whatever roles Fox found for them. Patricia Owens ended up in The Fly, with the child actor that plays Tony Randall’s son, Charles Herbert. For all her effort, Ms. Owens’ most remembered role would be as the wife of a fly. The same goes for Barbara Rush, similarly pegged in the Sci-fi films When Worlds Collide and It Came from Outer Space. That’s what ya get for making Pat Hingle go to church, lady.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
No Down Payment
Movie: Very Good +Plus
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 26, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson