Sunday 18 April 2021

Movie Review: No Down Payment (1957)

A suburban drama exploring the dissatisfaction churning beneath the pursuit of the American dream, No Down Payment is packed with characters and sub-plots. The chasms between ambition and reality create compelling storylines, but are also frequently over-torqued.

In California, electrical engineer David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and his wife Jean (Patricia Owens) move into the Los Angeles suburb of Sunrise Hills. They quickly befriend their neighbours, all similarly aged middle class couples: decorated war veteran Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife Leola (Joanne Woodward); used car salesman Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife Isabelle (Sheree North); and store manager Herman Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush).

Through backyard barbecues and community interactions, David and Jean are quickly embroiled in their new neighbours' personal dramas. Troy has limited formal education and desperately wants to become Sunrise Hills' police chief. He is also attracted to sophisticated newcomer Jean, who enjoys flirting, much to David's chagrin. Meanwhile Jerry dreams of becoming wealthy, but the reality of his car salesman job drives him to excessive drinking. Herm and Betty are the most stable couple, although she is a church-goer and he isn't, while his position on the Sunrise Hills council forces him to confront the community's racism. With the four couples' various struggles reaching a boiling point, dangerous emotions erupt into the open.

An exposé of the anxieties and frustrations hiding behind picket fences in the suburban communities sprouting after World War Two, No Down Payment boldly seeks dark corners of discontent. With a lot of ground to cover, Philip Yordan's script gets down to business quickly, introducing eight adults in the first 20 minutes, and director Martin Ritt trusts his cast to embrace the individual differentiators required to create the same-but-different dynamic.

While the couples are similarly aged, white, and reasonably privileged, their contrasts are sharply drawn. David is a cerebral engineer, avoiding a more lucrative career in sales but at the risk of disappointing the ambitious Jean. Troy is an ex-Marine, his psyche forged (and damaged) during intense combat against the Japanese. Jerry's dreams are much broader than his limited talent. Herm is closest to matching expectations with status, and is awakening to the racist boundary lines drawn around parcels of opportunity.

In an ensemble cast lacking obvious star power, Tony Randall, Cameron Mitchell, Jeffrey Hunter and Pat Hingle deliver surprisingly effective performances, well beyond their career personas. The women are all assigned analogous roles as housekeepers with the primary mission of looking after their husbands and children. Leola enjoys the darkest backstory, Joanne Woodward provided the opportunity to shine as her character travels along the bumpiest suburban roads carrying painful luggage.

Filmed in back and white and CinemaScope, the paradoxical setting helps to colour the context. All the homes in Sunrise Hills look alike, and are packed close enough together to eradicate privacy. This is the starter kit for the American dream, affordable home ownership without individuality or seclusion. The residents cannot avoid the grass colour on the other side of the fence, and the status of the Joneses is visible through the bedroom window.

Despite the film's ambition to tackle serious subject matter, several resolutions are half-hearted or lack conviction. The racism sub-plot is left hanging, and several characters undergo incongruous and rapid transformations. Yordan and Ritt eventually meander towards a series of shouting matches and miserable relationship breakdowns, before an assault comprehensively shreds the veneer of suburban utopia. No Down Payment promises the illusion of here-and-now material wealth, but as four couples find out, short-term gain usually also means long-term pain.

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