When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
Missing from Home Video:

Remember at the end of 1946’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES when the characters played by Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, despite their challenges of underemployment, post-war stress, and scant time knowing each other, decided to get married?  Did you ever wonder what sorts of lives and marriage that couple would be sustaining a decade later?  How did they adapt to the economic comfort and single bread-winner lifestyle of suburban bonhomie and two-car garages that were endemic in the 1950s?

If the question intrigues you, Martin Ritt’s 1957 black-and-white, CinemaScope, star-laden drama NO DOWN PAYMENT throws some disquieting yet highly possible scenarios in your face. 

As the title implies, NO DOWN PAYMENT is situated in the post-War phenomenon of suburban housing developments, where veterans could purchase a piece of the American Dream with no money down.  More to the point, the movie unflinchingly looks at four married couples living on the same block of Sunrise Hills Estate, a new housing development on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles.  The movie fades in on the moving day of David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter & Patricia Owens), who quickly meet the Kreitzer family across the back fence (Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush) and are invited to their first neighborhood barbecue.

It’s at this all-American social gathering, with sirloins sizzling on the grill and a Johnny Mercer tune wafting from the hi-fi, that the emotional nudity of these suburbanites’ lives begins to show.  On the Kreitzers’ patio, burnished with a cool and dispassionate lighting scheme by cinematographer Joseph LaShelle (LAURA), the light banter about station wagons and service station credit cards grows acerbic as the naive and hopeful Martins meet the most openly dysfunctional family on the block, Jerry and Isabelle Flagg (Tony Randall and Sheree North, two traditional lightweights who bring in gut-wrenching performances).  The party’s quartet is completed by the Boones (Joanne Woodward and Cameron Mitchell), Tennessee hill émigrés who are searching for their place in the 1950s economic expansion that brought millions out of poverty and into the middle-class.

Sheree North tensely observes hubby Tony Randall as he mixes and downs a Martini before going to work.  In the background, their son is glued to a blaring TV and refuses to budge.

Just as suburbia and its families sometimes present a bogus front, so too the script for this film has a false facade:  the man who is given credit onscreen for the script was actually lending his name to a screenplay written by a discredited, Oscar®-nominated leftwing writer.  Hollywood veteran Philip Yordan ‘fronted’ this dystopian examination of suburbia that was actually penned by the blacklisted screenwriter of John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, Ben Maddow.  As someone summarily exiled from the benefits of the American Dream, Maddow explored the comforting fictions in U.S. society that alternately motivate and betray its participants.

Despite the unflattering view of Sunrise Hills, this movie is neither a cruel parody nor a hatchet job on the American bourgeoisie.  It functions more as a reality check that cuts through the American Century rhetoric and soberly examines the fears and cultural pressures inherited by a generation of Depression babies whose early adulthood was interrupted by World War II and who lived at a standard of living that was unimaginable twenty years before.  The residents of Sunrise Hills are old enough to have school-age kids yet young enough to dance to rock ‘n’ roll.  After the first evening’s barbecue and everyone’s back home, two of the couples have mutually-hungry goodnight sex while the other half, due to disagreements, don’t.

The fact that all the adults are still in their prime of their sexual attractiveness creates strained and misaligned moments during the second neighborhood bash we witness, where rock ‘n’ roll and Cadillac-sized highballs bring out flirtations, loose tongues and barely-veiled lust among the partiers (plus by evening’s end, slaps and drunken sobbing). 

Barbara Rush is mortified that her other half, Pat Hingle, is washing the family car on a Sunday morning in plain view of church-goers.  ''Daddy's going to Hell when he dies!'' their son shouts when he sees the activity.

The Post-War period of filmmaking is when characters began to be more identified by their engagement in the workplace.  (I mean, Pre-War leading men were generally seen in home or nightclub situations and seldom seen making a living, nor even mentioning how they earned the money to pay for their suits and tuxedos.)  In NO DOWN PAYMENT the jobs of the four breadwinners and the relationships of the men to their work creates — in a similar way to family dynamics of the 1950s — the key narrative thrust (though not always the drama) in this film.  Jeffrey Hunter is an electronics engineer but his wife wants him to accept a sales job because they could use the extra money.  Pat Hingle is the settled corporate man.  Dreamer Tony Randall is a straight-commission used car salesman who brings home tiny paychecks but has a million get-rich-quick schemes inside him. 

But Cameron Mitchell’s aging country boy, Troy Boone, reveals the most interiority in his self-assessment of social worth.  Like Dana Andrews in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, Boone had his best moments as a soldier in WWII when he felt like someone and saw a possibility of change from the no-win hand that was dealt him.  Stoically, Boone declares at the barbecue:  “The worst day of my life was the day I put on civilian clothes.”  He’s made the garage into his personal war museum of medals and war booty.  “If I didn’t have my memories, I’d crawl into my car and turn on the exhaust pipe,” he confesses one night to the new girl next door.  He manages the neighborhood gas station but dreams of putting on a uniform again and being Sunrise Hills’ chief of police.

The film is an amazing work of observing characters and couples as they compare themselves to each other and attempt to define themselves within the constrictions of their backgrounds and stations in life.  Despite their secure social roles (that Sunrise Hills supposedly supplies) as breadwinner, housewife, parent, employee, these labels can’t keep doubts, fears and angers from spilling out of the characters’ souls.  The plot even includes a previously-taboo issue where Pat Hingle’s character is put in an awkward, socially-conflicting situation because his Japanese employee asks for help in buying a house in the white-only Sunrise Hills development.

In the last third of the movie, this cozy community disintegrates into violence with a protracted, ugly rape and the rage of a husband’s retribution.  The aftermath causes one resident to leave, while the other Sunrise Hills families arrive at truces.  Yet, between the philosophic balance of a major studio’s hegemony and the rebel input of a blacklisted screenwriter, NO DOWN PAYMENT dumps the final shots in your lap for analysis.  Is the suburban emigrant leaving ignominiously, or is that character the fortunate one with a fresh chance in life?  Have the other couples truly found resolutions to their psychic torments (as they file out, chipper and smiling, from the church down the street), or are they adding a layer of self-mendacity to their existence?  Should those who stayed behind be envied, or should they be pitied?  (Or — perhaps more accurately — should they be identified with ourselves?)

It’s this craft and examination that makes NO DOWN PAYMENT a major film work that has been neglected too long.  At the time of its release, its discomfiting take on the new American society didn’t push the film into 1957’s list of audience favorites.  (Overseas, however, the movie received a Best Picture nomination and Woodward a Best Actress bid from BAFTA, the British academy awards.)  With over a half-century’s hindsight to support this film, it proves now to be a coldly accurate document of the way we were.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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15 Comments to “Missing from Home Video:

  1. Marilyn says:

    So this was your great surprise. And a great one it was. Brilliant write-up and thoughtful analysis of what Maddow brought to the table. I’d love to see this – it rings so true of the life my parents had. Thanks, Doug, for another great find.

  2. Very nice piece, Doug. I’m wondering, though … which Johnny Mercer? (I haven’t seen the film, alas.) IMDb only lists a Lionel Newman/Carroll Coates song called “The Drive-In Rock.” My guess is that “Something’s Gotta Give,” prominently used in Fox’s DADDY LONG LEGS and the quasi-Fox KRONOS, would be a good candidate.

    A costume-designer friend of mine would refer to this film when describing “ingenue” get-up, referring to it as “a Joanne Woodward dress.”

    • Doug says:

      Chris, you named that tune! I’m awfully sure it was SOMETHING’S GOT TO GIVE which, as you say, would be a natural tie-in for a Fox release. Also, it was perfectly perky to kick off a young people’s cook-out.

  3. Linda says:

    You did a great job on the analysis, but I would also mention the fact that for the times, the rape is dealt with differently from the way that sexual violence was dealt with in other movies of the time. I have seen this movie in the 1990’s and it is a great film. I would like to see it in home video.

    • Doug says:

      Linda, I totally agree that the rape was dealt with in a far less cliche’d and more mature way than other movies of that era: as an act of violence instead of a sexual act, with the woman giving her attacker many messages to back off and go home before the violation occured. It is such a difficult scene to sit through that I couldn’t go too deeply into the dynamics of that point.

      Thanks for the nice words on my analysis.

  4. Bill Yar says:

    Is there some place this film “No Down Payment” (1957) can be purchased or rented anywhere? Blockbuster? Netflix? Hulu? Vudu? Other? Thanks Bill

  5. Shari D says:

    It’s a great, sharply focused view of suburban life, now living in the newest social lifestyle form created by the needs of a huge influx of returning WWII GI’s. These were the young men who had their young lives, as well as those young women who would become their wives, and the parents of the next most singularly world-changing generation, disrupted by a war that would shake the world to its very core. The changes that came about in the mushrooming post~war economy left heads spinning in all directions, and no one had any experience dealing with such a lifestyle ~ everything new, right now, and on demand.
    I am a product of that generation, coming into it the same year this movie was made. It’s amazing to compare movies such as this with the stories told by my family and the families of my friends. It makes a lot of things come into much sharper focus.
    In case you don’t have a recording of this movie, it got posted to Youtube in July, in its entirety, beginning with the credits. I’ve watched it twice ~ it’s all there. Enjoy!

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for posting, Shari. I’m 4 years older than the movie, so I remember a lot about growing up in this environment. It was a time that is so misunderstood today. I’m glad the creative team of NO DOWN PAYMENT had the awareness to examine the world in which they were living so brilliantly. Thanks for the YouTube tip, too!

  6. Tam says:

    I was not sure I wanted to see this film. But, after reading your outstanding analysis, I’ve decided that I will watch it. Thanks for sharing.

  7. rewolfson says:

    just watched this mesmerizing (like a train-wreck) film. fascinating on so many levels. loved your informative analysis. i comment on the irony of the japanese breadwinner and war vet believing he WANTS to live in this american dysfunction, that it promises something better for his children. had to be the blacklisted writer’s swipe at the hypocrisy and the human need to believe (mirrored in all the happy church-goers exiting the film’s conclusion, including our happy japanese). as for me, a great advert for aa and al-anon, as telegraphed early by randall, “i’m not an alcoholic,” and north’s, “you don’t want help.” aa was coming of age in ’57. this great film out soaps peyton place by far and out sirks sirk. they don’t make starkly honest ensemble pieces like this anymore. people don’t want to look at themselves, certainly not on screen. this what God does for entertainment: watches us. all day, everyday. thanks again.

    • Doug says:

      Thanks for the beautifully written observations, and for the kind words on my piece of writing. I still wonder why this film has been swept under the rug. Is it too dark? Too honest? Too unflattering? Do you have any ideas?

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