It’s Los Angeles in the 1950s and the GI Bill-fueled migration from city to suburb is in high gear. An opening shot of a vast (but shockingly empty) freeway system sets the scene. A gorgeous young couple in a late-model Chrysler cruises out of town. They smile as they pass billboard after billboard trumpeting newly minted middle-class subdivisions: Fairview Ranchos, Enchanted Homes, Dutch Haven, Park Village Estates and, finally, Sunrise Hills (“a better place for better living”). They exit to the hills.
|The Flaggs: Sheree North and Tony Randall|
So begins Martin Ritt’s second feature film, No Down Payment (1957), a slice of suburban realism generously spiced with melodrama. An ensemble cast portrays four neighboring couples who’ve staked their claim to the American Dream in Sunrise Hills. Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush are the Kreitzers (Herm and Betty), an easygoing pair, he manages the local appliance store, she’s a housewife. Tony Randall and Sheree North are the Flaggs (Jerry and Isabelle), he’s a boozy car salesman with get-rich-quick fantasies and she’s a housewife. Cameron Mitchell and Joanne Woodward are the Boones (Troy and Leola), he runs a service station and aspires to be police chief – and she’s a housewife. Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens are the Martins (David and Jean), the couple in the Chrysler, newlywed and new in Sunrise Hills, he’s an electronics engineer and, yes, she is a housewife.
|Mid-century Southern California, a better home and garden|
Ben Maddow’s adaptation (fronted by Philip Yordan) of John McPartland’s breakthrough 1957 novel is, under Ritt’s direction, a combination of grit and soap that mostly works, sometimes doesn’t, but has always intrigued me. It’s a high-drama trip into a particular era in a place close to home.
No Down Payment takes place north of my hometown, most certainly in that part of L.A. known as “The Valley,” aka/the San Fernando Valley, the city’s now enormous bedroom community. On the heels of World War II production and the post-war boom with its VA/FHA home loans, The Valley experienced a population explosion so powerful that by 1960 its citizenry numbered more than a million.
As the Martins make their way through the streets of Sunrise Hills to their new home, we get a glimpse of the housing development. From the curb, the houses and yards appear identical. As the plot advances, we see that they are the same inside and out – stucco, wood, glass and brick ranch homes with high windows facing the street and floor-to-ceiling glass and sliding doors facing backyard and patio. Standard issue includes a fireplace, kitchen nook, bar - and a console TV with a young tot or two rooted in front of it.
|The Kreitzers & the Martins: Rush, Hingle, Owens and Hunter|
Once the Martins step into their house for the first time they kiss happily, then passionately. Surveying their patio and backyard they meet the Kreitzers, whose yard abuts theirs. “Hi...welcome to Sunrise Hills,” calls Betty. David and Jean are quickly invited to a backyard barbecue that night at the Kreitzers.
Just as Herm promised, there are “steaks on the fire” and, over stiff drinks, the new couple meets their other nearby neighbors, the Flaggs and the Boones. Isabelle Flagg is enthusiastic about the area, “Sunrise Hills is just the living end,” she chirps. Troy Boone mentions “saving green stamps.” But Jerry Flagg, several drinks ahead of the others and bursting with irony, observes that everyone in the subdivision is “only 25 years in debt.” The men talk about the contrast between Depression era life and the present. Having endured World War II, the post-war age seems secure and comfortable and David Martin crows, “I think we were born at the right time…we’re here now and everybody’s doing great!” David served at Los Alamos during the war. Music drifts from the stereo and soon dancing begins. Lecherous Jerry makes moves on refined Jean as they dance, and David watches uneasily from the sidelines. Troy, a proud war hero, cuts in and saves her - after which Isabelle and Jerry argue and, as the group looks on, she slaps him across the face.
A night or so later the Flaggs, reconciled once more, throw a neighborhood cocktail party; Jerry has made a sale and insists on celebrating. It’s the same four couples, together again. By now we know that Troy and Leola are hicks from the Deep South (Jerry calls them “Daisy Mae and Li’l Abner”). Troy is ambitious and quick to anger, Leola is sweet but erratic. We’ve learned that Herm is the rock of the community and that he and Betty are a simpatico pair. We’ve seen Jerry drink in nearly every scene – as Isabelle worries and frets either in a corner or in his face. David and Jean are deeply in honeymoon love – but she is pressing him to move into a better paying job.
|Troy and Leola Boone: Cameron Mitchell and Joanne Woodward|
The tension in this microcosmic enclave continues to build. Herm and Betty grapple with confronting discrimination; one of Herm’s key employees, a Japanese-American man, has asked him to challenge the whites-only imperative of the Sunrise Hills developers. Jerry, who bent the rules to make a sale, is out of a job and on the verge of being thrown out of his house by fed-up Isabelle (classic lines: Isabelle in a frustrating heart-to-heart with Jerry: “You’re the man, you’re supposed to know what to do!”; Jerry’s view, “All our troubles boil down to one thing – money – how to get a bundle of it!”). Troy and Leola have had a volatile life together from the start and things only gets worse when she drinks - and then, worse still, he doesn't get the job he's been counting on. David, responding to an implied ultimatum from Jean, goes on a sales trip; his timing couldn’t be worse. While he’s away, one neighbor’s bout with a bottle and a belly full of resentment turns ugly and violent.
In 1957, Tony Randall wasn't yet completely typed as a comedic actor. His energetic turn as desperate Jerry Flagg, a man of extreme moods and desires, is an eye-opener. Cameron Mitchell oozes barely contained fury as Troy who yearns for the glory and respect that was his during the war. Pat Hingle is engaging as an honorable everyman, self-possessed but not immune to the pressure to march in step. Though top-billed Joanne Woodward offers tender and thoughtful moments of subtlety, she also overindulges in occasional histrionics (bringing to mind the high-strung heroines of Tennessee Williams).
Even with its excesses, No Down Payment is potent commentary on the suburban culture it dramatically depicts. To be honest, I'm not sure my pleasure in it is all that "guilty" anymore.
|Anxiety in suburbia|
Click here for a link to the full list of blogs participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon.
Click here to learn more about forgotten writer John McPartland, the author of No Down Payment.