The Fractured ’50s in Black-and-White Cinemascope (1): No Down Payment

The Fractured ’50s in Black-and-White Cinemascope (1): No Down Payment

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 27th 2018

The American Dream of a prosperous life was one of the 1950s’ most pervasive themes, but status elevation took hard work and required persistence and patience. Pulp novelist John McPartland’s signature mainstream book No Down Payment (1957), exploring the tangled relationships among four discontented couples, each of which encountered turbulence in their individual quests for security while living in the suburban California housing development of Sunset Hills, depicted the dark side of life in the idealized communities for which the freeway roadside billboards promised “a home you’ll be proud of…for generations to come,” where you could “live on a new level” in “a better place for better living.” Producer Jerry Wald envisioned the opportunities for a provocative ensemble melodrama in the material and purchased the rights to the book in galley form, and laser-focused on emerging movie director Martin Ritt, fresh from his acclaimed debut feature Edge of the City (1957), as the guy who could capture on film what The Motion Picture Guide authors Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross would later dub “a social documentary about the phenomenon that was gripping the U.S. at the time: the exodus to the suburbs and the inability to pay for the homes beyond each monthly mortgage check.” Naturally, underneath all the optimistic hype, human fallibility – in the form of sexual infidelity, alcohol addiction, racial intolerance and unenlightened community politics – would rear its ugly head to tarnish the illusion of an up-front No Down Payment that could dangerously drift to back-end disillusionment, heartbreak and even tragedy. 

Continuing his rich tradition of plush, well-constructed melodramas with deep-bench casts, producer Wald rounded up a premium ensemble of emerging Fox contract players to play the marrieds under the microscope: Joanne Woodward and Cameron Mitchell as Leola and Troy Boone, Sheree North and Tony Randall as Isabel and Jerry Flagg, Barbara Rush and Pat Hingle as Betty and Herman Kreitzer, and new subdivision arrivals Patricia Owens and Jeffrey Hunter as Jean and David Martin. In the estimation of The Films of Martin Ritt: Fanfare for the Common Man author Gabriel Miller, they’re “shown to be victims of the rat race that was consuming the upwardly mobile after World War II. Ritt is most interested in exploring the lives of these affluent suburbanites in order to show how the pursuit of money and status erodes character and destroys relationships.” These actors buy into their characters’ dreams, neuroses and blind spots with riveting conviction, with Woodward – whose National Board of Review Best Actress Award that year was jointly given for her Oscar®-winning The Three Faces of Eve and this film, which arrived a month after the multiple-personality drama – and Randall – startlingly scoring as a delusional, hard-drinking car salesman in a serious vein far removed from his other two Twentieth Century Fox projects earlier in the year, Oh, Men! Oh, Women! and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? – as particular standouts. Contemporary moviegoers didn’t buy into the billboards. At his thepassionatemoviegoer.com blog, movie critic/historian Joe Baltake affirms the value of “this tidy little 1957 expose of the queasy side of then-modern suburbia – a fine film that came and went without making much of an impression because of the double whammy of (1) being ahead of its time and (2) holding an all-too-intimidating mirror up to unsuspecting audiences who essentially looked away. No one wanted to see a soiled American Dream. Ritt’s work here, written by the blacklisted Philip Yordan (fronted by a credited Ben Maddow), clearly anticipates the work of John Cheever. Ritt’s film seems to have been the inadvertent template for the silliness and rampant shallowness that pervade Desperate Housewives, only Ritt's portrait is not cozy and funny but something more devastating. This is no facile soap opera. He uncovers an unease in his film’s prefabricated housing development.No Down Payment, neglected for 50 years, is disturbing and at times corrosive – and not that far removed from the picture of America today. A nervy minor masterwork.” Artfully shot by the great Joseph LaShelle, an Academy Award® winner for Laura (1944) whose eight other Oscar® nominations include the Twilight Time titles My Cousin Rachel (1952) and The Fortune Cookie (1966), and derived from Fox’s recent 60th-anniversary 4K restoration, No Down Payment exacts its price April 17 on TT hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open April 4.