Suburban Tales VIII: No Down Payment (1957)

November 30, 2018 | By

I’ll always be obsessed with the suburbs – not because I grew up in a surreal environment, but because from age 4-22 I lived in a new suburban development in North York, on a street where kids played together, neighbours held BBQ’s, and everyone washed their car on the weekend with beer breaks.

The ages of kids ranged from toddlers to teens, and friendly competition included having the better lawn, installing better interlocking shale slabs, owning two cars, and bonding over Tupperware parties. There were even craft gatherings that brought other friends together, from which I got two red & white checkered frogs filled with rice. The first was the mother, and the second a bonus kid – a bonus because the foot was sewed wrong and no one wanted it. I felt the little one deserved a family, and it stayed with the rabbit, bunny, bear, monkey, and Oscar the Grouch puppet in my room. (I had many stuffed animals.)

Fairview Mall in the early 1970s. Bright, shiny, happy North York.

My suburban childhood was extremely happy – 4 to 11 were the best years – and it was a time when almost all dads worked, but some moms had part-time jobs.

My father was an accountant, and my mother worked a couple of shifts at Simpson’s at the new Fairview Mall in the women’s fashion department, which made me a classic latchkey kid for the days when no one was home until dinner.

I did notice at an early age the oddness of living side by side to other houses of slightly different designs (some better than ours), and those weekend washing / mowing / BBQ’ing routines which were almost religiously performed, especially during the spring / summer / fall season, but as for religion proper, there was no church steeple in the distance – just a new freeway, expanded main streets, a huge park, new schools, and an extended bus line that served me well from junior high school (blacch!) to high school and university.

Even without a place of worship in the immediate environs – my mother was sort of religious, my father a cynical agnostic at best – there are striking similarities between the sprawling 1974 development where I grew up, and the far more sleek mid-century world in No Down Payment (1957), one of the earliest dramas about the darker side of couples and families in a shiny new development (and released on Blu via Twilight Time).


Remove the more established city buildings in this shot from No Down Payment (1957) and replace them with more housing tracts, and you get classic 1970s suburbia.


North York wasn’t a town – ‘twas a borough, then – but the nervousness experienced by a new family / couple moving into their first home is and will remain an experience to be shared my millions, be it 1957 or 1974, or the 1990s when many of the first owners sold their homes and moved to larger digs, or took those baby steps into condos as the supply of homes expanded with townhomes and modest condos.

There is a moment early into Martin Ritt’s film version John McPartland’s novel in which used car salesman Jerry Flagg knocks back some afternoon booze, raises his glass, and goes on a forced merry bark on the wonders of buying with no down payment, owning without laying down barely a deposit, and experiencing home ownership through the wonder of credit.

It’s a prescient drunken screed because credit is what enabled many of the characters to buy homes, but it’s also amusing to see the optimism of the new couple stepping into their first home which today is for many an impossible dream in Toronto – a town where bidding wars and property values went to insane levels in 2017.



The dream of home ownership isn’t wholly impossible, but there’s so much wrong in Toronto (our city planning is lazy, unimaginative, and dumb; and a fully detached house will cost you close to if not a full $1 million now) that tales of suburban sleaze, petty conflicts, and the oddness of semi- and fully-detached home living will be increasingly restricted to a select few.

That makes both the past and relatively recent tales set in suburban tracts almost fantasy for many, and I wonder if the same density of quirks that make this genre so special to fans like myself can be replicated or substituted with variants with couples and families moving into glass condos.

If I move into one of the tall banalities smothering old neighbourhoods and cluttering our waterfront, I’ll take notes and sketch out some parallels for a story (or screed), but I don’t think the results, either in prose or as a script, will be as successful, because suburban tales of duplicitous behaviour, secrets, illicit bonking, weirdness, and supernatural inter-dimensional invasions just don’t work in the condo shoeboxes that litter the city.

Suburban tales mandate space; areas within a home to hide, barricade, or lock up secrets. Perhaps the best example of the clash between house and a glass box resides in the Poltergeist franchise itself: the 1982 film vividly evokes my 1974 childhood, whereas the second sequel from 1988 is boring because the family’s environs and areas of danger are severely limited, and sometimes lame: a condo, an elevator, the garage, and connecting mall – none of which are scary.

Besides, a parking garage where car headlamps ‘suddenly’ glare before a ‘freak’ snowfall is really grasping.

Coming shortly is a review of Dante Tomaselli’s feature film debut Desecration (1993) from Code Red / Kino Lorber / Unobstructed View, and in the works is the full quartet of Sherwood Forest films produced by Columbia and Hammer, which I’m tying to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition of Sword of Sherwood Forest (1960), the last in the series.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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