No Down Payment

NO DOWN PAYMENT added its well-acted clutch of unhappy suburban dwellers to a crowded neighborhood of 1957 dramas. Among the comedies, westerns and sci-fi thrillers, the year’s ‘adult’ offerings hit notable notes of discord, poking holes in the furiously buzzing hive of upwardly mobile America, revealing the sting of discontent among the workers and drones. *

In ‘Sunrise Hills’, a sprawling new suburb of greater Los Angeles, four ‘average’ couples try to fit their personalities, pursuits and problems into the deceptively relaxed but class-competitive jigsaw puzzle of backyard barbeques & patio cocktail parties, a flirt & blurt mixer milieu of dreams and ideals, one garage door or two too many martinis away from prejudices and resentments.

Newly arrived electronics engineer ‘David Martin’ (Jeffrey Hunter) and wife ‘Jean’ (Patricia Owens) share fences and sidewalks with folksy Tennessee transplants ‘Troy Boone’ (Cameron Mitchell), a bitter war hero running a gas station, and his oversexed, undereducated wife ‘Leola’ (Joanne Woodward); boozing, motor-mouthed car salesman ‘Jerry Flagg’ (Tony Randall) and wife ‘Isabelle’ (Sheree North), tired of Jerry’s lines of bull; and genial hardware store owner/city councilman ‘Herman Kreitzer’ (Pat Hingle) and churchy, reserved wife ‘Betty’ (Barbara Rush).

Directed by new guy on the block Martin Ritt, the script, credited to Philip Yordan, was actually written by blacklisted Ben Maddow,  adapted from pulp writer John McPartland’s novel. Compressing multiple subplots and numerous characters into a standard running time of 105 minutes pushes emotions to sprout overquick and ends with melodrama and a pat wrapup, but the dialogue is well-crafted and the actors are on key. As a critique of emergent, enveloping suburbia from a scornful lefty perspective it naturally takes the disdainful highbrow attitude that it must all be bad. None of the housewives are stamped with professions, so they’re characterized by self-grading attitudes marked by what their husbands do to pay for mortgage & car, TV & toys and all those steaks & highballs. The kid-sitting TVs are all tuned to westerns (well, they got that right). The pressure to get ahead while keeping yours above water comes across, and the relationship strain that accompanied the load of responsibility, sense of duty, awareness of status, and credit-crunching cul de sac of diversions. **

The cast of vetted pros and relative newcomers pay the rent with conviction. Hunter’s clean-cut earnestness and Owens patrician cool smack convincingly into Mitchell’s fuse of repressed anger and Woodward’s sad, guileless simplicity. Randall got one of his rare chances with serious material and proves to be as nimble with drama as he was with comedy. De-glammed this time out, North delivers frustration to effect, while Rush gets the least demonstrative part in support of Hingle’s effusive peacemaker, who is given the choice to address the all-white neighborhood’s unspoken color bar (in this case excluding Japanese-Americans).

The well-chosen blend of eight interesting co-stars caught them at various stages in their careers. Owens, 32, nabbed roles in two of the year’s biggest hits, Sayonara and Island In The Sun. Then 27, Woodward broke big in ’57, winning an Oscar for The Three Faces Of Eve. Randall, 37, made his big-screen debut earlier in the year with Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a more satirical look at modern man’s stacked priorities. Hingle, 32, had been busy on TV, had earned big screen shots that year with this and the well-reviewed military-school drama The Strange One, which also introduced Ben Gazzara and George Peppard. The studio (Fox) stopped pushing 24-year-old North as a sex symbol replacement for Marilyn Monroe and dropped her down a peg for supporting roles in dramas, then let her contract lapse a year later. Rush at 30 was locked into a decade-long groove of playing unhappy housewives or jilted girlfriends. Also 30, the underrated Hunter (ironically, Rush’s ex-husband) was working steadily and dependably but had seen his trajectory go from hot to warm. Mitchell, 38, was the oldest pro in the subdivision, in films since 1945, usually as a rapacious heavy. Even though he’s menacing in this movie, he tried to break the bad guy straightjacket in three other features that year (Monkey On My Back, Escapade In Japan, All Mine To Give) without success.

 A production tab of $995,000 was comfortably retired by a gross of $3,400,000. With Aki Aleong and Robert H. Harris.

* The biggest popular success of 57s “What’s wrong with us?” crowd, Peyton Place, was produced by Jerry Wald, who also steered No Down Payment, which ranked 72nd at the box office (Peyton Place was #2). Competition for being disturbed about the state of the States was shared by Twelve Angry Men, A Face In The Crowd, Sweet Smell of Success and The Bachelor Party. Critics fixated on lauding those excellent movies have generally neglected the worthy No Down Payment. Once-blacklisted Martin Ritt made his feature-debut earlier in the year with another social drama, Edge Of The City.

** This suburban-spawned cur doesn’t know, but I doubt like hell if Ritt, Maddow or Yordan ever even knew people who lived in the burbs, let alone had the ghastly gaucherie to reside there themselves, since Comradian conceits about the messy masses are best observed from park-view balconies in Manhattan or poolside bungalows in Beverly Hills. Presumably, everyone in the middle class was supposed to either stay fighting for breath in the city (tenements, subways, gangs, exhaust—what collective fun!) or starve in the sticks (ain’t no books, just grits, outhouses, and flies). A yard of your own? Holy Mao, the next step must obviously be the goose-type.

 

 

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