BR: No Down Payment (1957)

November 30, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: April 17, 2018

Genre:  Drama

Synopsis: A fresh-faced couple discover their neighbours in a new suburban development have some dark issues which ultimately bleed into their cozy life.

Special Features: Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.

 


 

Review:

Please note: this review contains spoilers!

Martin Ritt’s second film as director is this lesser known, slightly star-studded drama based on a novel by pulp writer John McPartland, and both the film and novel were reportedly the inspiration for Knots Landing (1979-1993),  CBS’s long-running prime time soap opera about provocative conflicts among neighbours packed into a freshly carved cul-de-sac.

No Down Payment may also be one of the earliest dramas exclusively about bedroom secrets oozing from a shiny modern suburban housing development, predating subsequent satirical (The ‘Burbs), science-fiction (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and horrific (Poltergeist) takes.

McPartland’s narrative could be dissected as a modern horror story in which young & shiny engineer David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and wife Jean (Patricia Owen) move into Sunrise Hills, the perfect middle class community.

As they learn from a BBQ on their first evening in mid-century paradise, the smiles, invites, and unlocked gates that interconnect backyard and next-door neighbours hide some deeply flawed lives headed for a total crash & burn.

Commission-earning, used car salesman Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) gets hammered and mooches money from his emotionally abused wife Isabelle (Sheree North) and customers, and dreams of outrageous schemes to make easy big money; among his neighboring pals, Herman Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) is a cautious friend and pragmatist who runs a home furnishing & appliance store whose success is due in part to model employee Iko (Aki Aleong), a Japanese-American determined to earn his own rightful place as a homeowner; and Tennessee émigré Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) aspires to become a lawman in the expanding town, hoping to use wasting skills from his distinguished military career during WWII.

The Kreitzer and Flagg kids play together, and both families represent the nuclear unit craved by childless Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward), but where Herman is patient and determined to teach good progressive morals to his son, Jerry lies and buys toys & gifts to overcompensate for his lack of attention and care.

The Martins are nervous but trusting, and accept the friendly BBQ invite from the Kreitzers, but soon discover Jerry’s too touchy-feely when he caps a tough day  with potent martinis, and Troy’s initial heroism in saving Jean from Jerry’s leering ignites an attraction which endangers his marriage with low-confidence Leola.

Controversial screenwriter Philip Yordan (Broken Lance, The Man from Laramie, El Cid) fronted for blacklisted writer Ben Maddow (The Asphalt Jungle, The Naked Jungle, The Mephisto Waltz), and while the melodrama and seedy behaviour isn’t unique to the suburban drama, the script’s sharp dialogue and excellent construction is a small marvel of organization.

Almost everyone dreams of a better life and carries some measure of wounded self-esteem: Jerry wants to make his wife proud; Troy needs to show everyone that a G.I. from the sticks can rise about his neighbours’ social & moral class as an official peacemaker in bustling suburbia; and David is willing to give Jean’s push towards selling electronics a try in spite of being far more content (and adept) sitting at a desk and solving assorted engineering quandaries.

Only Herman seems at peace on his streamlined plateau because he’s reached his goals by being cautious, practical, and reasonable, running his own business and retaining a seat on the town council; to Troy and Jerry, he’s boring and the antithesis of the true American Dreamer, but unlike his neighboring critics, Herman’s work, marriage, and family stay bullet-proof past the End Credits.

If the Martins are the suburban virgins from whom we see the emerging warts, then the Kreitzers represent the reluctant but necessary instigators of change in the town’s class structure and racial status quo. In a reasoned, almost banal argument with Betty (Barbara Rush), Herman uses middling, NIMBY-esque  arguments against supporting Iko’s inclusion into their WASP housing enclave, but soon runs out of excuses, and realizes he’s the only person of influence who can enable baby-steps of change in their sleek, modern, yet quietly racist town.

The scriptwriters don’t attempt to dramatize the full spectrum of each conflict – Jerry’s ultimate decision to abandon his lofty dreams and work at Herman’s store as a 9-5 worker bee on a fixed salary is way too neat – but Payment should be regarded as a pioneering entry in the suburban drama genre, with real & still persistent conflicts that endure.

A new couple gambling their fragile finances on a starter home is an especially timeless hook, as home ownership has become an impossible dream in cities who sold themselves too well and failed to future-proof urban planning for the inevitable increase in population density.

Indeed, gambling is precisely what each of the four couples have done to make that leap from renting to owning stunning mid-century houses with good frontage, a curving driveway and two-car garage, and deep backyards and patios interconnected by gates. Jerry’s first oration in the film is a semi-drunken rallying call for all to exploit the miracle of putting down zero cash to buy a dream.

‘Everyone’s doing it,’ and you can deal with the consequences / schmonsequences later over a martini.

The Martin’s suburban idyll is threatened following that fateful BBQ. The day after playing hero, Troy’s now a Peeping Tom, watching Jean from his large opposing bedroom window, and begins to dream of prurient actions. Soon after driving Jean home during a lunch break, he seeks to boost his masculine persona by showing his war medals and trophies (samurai swords, flags) mounted in the garage – tough guy paraphernalia alien to electronic geek David. Then the monster is unleashed: after a nasty fight with Leola, Troy gets hammered, wanders into Jean’s home, and rapes her while David is out of town.

One could suggest McPartland’s characterization of Troy and Leola is modeled on A Streetcar Named Desire’s Stanley and Stella Kowalski – the poster art features shirtless Toy and Leola teasing each other – but unlike Tennessee Williams’ finale, Troy doesn’t drive Jean mad after the rape, and his marriage to Leola doesn’t endure. Following the mandate of the Production Code, rapist Troy is punished by a terminal stroke of bad luck, but Jean’s trauma is depicted as something akin to a broken ankle: there’s some lingering pain, but life goes in spite of some occasional smarting and stiffness.

Payment‘s finale isn’t exactly a victory for the resilient, progressive characters; it’s a subversive cynical poke at postwar suburbia. Leola taxis home because the Boones ‘couldn’t cut it’; and although Aki emerges from the church as a new member of the community with the Kreitzers, Herman probably thinks Sunday mass is utter bullshit – the film begins with churchgoing Betty chastising her agnostic hubby for washing his car at the foot of the driveway instead paying his respects and reaffirming good Christian values.

Perhaps the most cynical jab is seeing the Martins exiting with the congregation just prior to the End Credits. During the Main Titles, after passing those lurid housing development billboards, they stop by a curb and watch churchgoers (and their future neighbours) strutting out somewhat righteously. In the finale, they’ve been absorbed into the town’s clique, but unknown is whether their marriage, David’s work, or gateway temptations that simmer within their neighbourhood will chip away at their suburban dream (and if we want to get really ugly, whether 8 months later Jean will be carrying Troy’s child).

Although women are central to the story and share almost as much time as the men, Jean, Isabelle, Leola, and Betty are locked into the rigid gender roles of the era: wives who wave bye-bye at the driveway as husbands pull out and travel to work; stay home to look after the kids; or compare family building strategies over coffee with simpatico wives after a shopping trip. Isabelle’s last push to get Jerry to abandon a stupid scheme is a necessary catharsis for the character and the script’s denouement, but one can argue her eruption comes from emotional exhaustion and desperation: her life and the well-being of their son are entirely reliant on Jerry’s bread-winning; the option of a working woman is wholly absent in this suburban dream world.

As translated to film, McPartland’s novel is a perfect setup for a film or TV series about what lurks behind WASP smiles, sleek fences, and manicured lawns of suburbanites. Producer Jerry Wald’s attraction to the novel probably stemmed from his in tandem production of Grace Metalious’ best-seller Peyton Place, of which the hit film was also released in 1957. Perhaps McPartland’s lurid critique of a heavily idealized lifestyle wasn’t ready until the concept of rot in suburbia was so neatly developed for Knots Landing.

Get your clammy hands off Jean, Troy!

Payment’s attractive cast features nascent & rising Fox contract stars instead of Peyton Place’s mix of emerging talent paired with star veterans: Tony Randall’s relatively straight dramatic role is contrasted by his comedic breakthrough, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957); Sheree North’s version of a an unhappy, frustrated wife / girlfriend / lover would recur throughout her career (Lawman, Breakout); and Aki Aleong appeared in several films and myriad TV series (V, General Hospital).

Cameron Mitchell had flowed through B (Gorilla at Large) and A level pictures (Man in a Tightrope, House of Bamboo) but in spite of his Fox studio contract, hit a plateau as a supporting player. Joanne Woodward won an Oscar that year for The Three Faces of Eve; Jeffrey Hunter was becoming a minor name in important pictures (The Searchers, King of Kings); Patricia Owens would appear in two of her best-known films, Sayonara (also 1957), and the horror classic The Fly (1958); and a very young & trim Pat Hingle was beginning a long & distinguished career as a top character actor (The Gauntlet, Ritt’s Norma Rae, and Batman).

Barbara Rush similarly drifted between genre pictures (When Worlds Collide, It Came from Outer Space) to important dramas (Bigger Than Life, The Young Lions) before settling into a lengthy career in TV (Flamingo Road, and ironically, the final season of Peyton Place). After co-starring in Ritt’s Hombre (1967), her subsequent film roles became increasingly minor, ending with the bubbleheaded Can’t Stop the Music (1980) and Summer Lovers (1982). Ritt also directed Joanne Woodward in The Long, Hot Summer (1958), The Sound and the Fury (1958), and Paris Blues (1961).

Films written by or based on works by John McPartland include The Wild Party (1956), Street of Sinners (1957), No Time to Be Young (1957), No Down Payment (1957), The Lost Missile (1958), and Johnny Cool (1963).

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a gorgeous transfer of the film, flattering Joseph LaShelle’s beautiful B&W cinematography and the striking art direction, both of which add to the film’s sexy depiction of mid-century modernism. Leigh Harline’s score is fairly straightforward but supports the characters and mounting frictions, and is isolated in stereo in a separate track. (It’s also worth noting some of the clips and music cues that play from family TV sets come from Broken Lance, a film scored by Harline and written by Yordan.)

Julie Kirgo’s essay celebrates the golden touch of Jerry Wald and Fox bigwig Buddy Adler, both of whom produced a string of classic melodramas, and she similarly draws attention to the film’s critique on consumerism and the lure of cheap loans, both of which were integral to the savings & loans debacle of 2007-2008.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
 
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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