No Down Payment (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Produced by Jerry Wald; directed by Martin Ritt; screenplay by Ben Maddow (a blacklisted screenwriter fronted by Philip Yordan), from the novel by John McPartland; cinematography by Joseph LaShelle; art direction by Lyle R. Wheeler and Herman A. Blumenthal; edited by Louis Loeffler; music by Leigh Harline; starring Joanne Woodward, Sheree North, Tony Randall, Jeffrey Hunter, Cameron Mitchell, Patricia Owens, Barbara Rush, Pat Hingle, Robert Harris, Aki Aleong, and Jim Hayward. Blu-ray, B&W, 105 min., 1957. A Twilight Time release.

Welcome to Sunrise Hills, a freshly built California suburb. Advertised as “A Better Place for Better Living,” it’s populated by a gaggle of young citizens with a surprising number of discontents and anxieties burbling below the well-groomed personas they present to their friends, neighbors, and spouses. Colorless in personality but colorful in their aspirations and frustrations, they are the denizens of No Down Payment, the 1957 melodrama based on John McPartland’s eponymous novel, published the same year and rushed to the screen by producer Jerry Wald, director Martin Ritt, and writer Ben Maddow, then on the McCarthy-era Blacklist and replaced by Philip Yordan in the credits. The film is now available on Blu-ray in Twilight Time’s limited-edition series, with no extras apart from a booklet essay by Julie Kirgo and an isolated music track for those who want undistracted access to Leigh Harline’s undistinguished jazz-tinged score.

All the central characters in No Down Payment are married couples. And all the couples consist of wives who maintain the homes while their husbands hunt and gather in the workaday world, the arrangement that seemed all but inevitable to middle-class Americans in the Eisenhower age. The movie begins with two newcomers moving into town: David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), a crew-cut engineer with a promising career in the electronics industry, and his wife, Jean (Patricia Owens), a homemaker who wishes David would stop fooling around with science and go into sales, where the real money is.

Newcomers in town meet their neighbors at a backyard barbecue hosted by the affable householder (Pat Hingle) behind the grill. 

They meet the others on their block at a backyard barbecue thrown by Herman Kreitzer (Pat Hingle), an appliance-store manager who comes to suspect that social injustice might lurk within his seemingly right-thinking town, and his wife, Betty (Barbara Rush), who dearly wishes that Herm shared her religious convictions, or would at least go to church like other respectable folks. Herm’s pangs of conscience concern his store’s one Japanese-American employee, who wants to move to all-white Sunrise Hills and needs Herm to influence the community on his behalf. Herm wants to help, but he’s hesitant to challenge the taken-for-granted bigotry of his peers.

While those characters are more or less okay with each other and their garden-variety bourgeois lifestyles, others are wrestling with problems all too typical of the Fifties, when material fortunes were rapidly rising but sociopolitical values were shakier by the day. Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) hates his job at a used-car lot, where we see him pushing a financially insecure couple into a purchase they can’t possibly afford; later he drowns his woes in one of the nightly booze-fests that drive his long-suffering wife, Isabelle (Sheree North), into fits of embarrassment before their friends.

And finally there’s the neighborhood’s most anomalous pair: the Tennessee transplants Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell), who peaked in the wartime army and now simmers and sulks as a lowly garage mechanic, and his young spouse, Isabelle (Joanne Woodward), an inveterate flirt tormented by the loss of a child she gave up for adoption when Troy suspected the baby wasn’t his. Troy turns out to be the wormiest apple in the Sunrise Hills barrel; the movie’s climax arrives when he brutally rapes Jean after failing to get a job—as the local police chief, ironically enough—that he counted on to boost his income, his status, and his self-respect.             

No Down Payment is a California story, complete with sunny skies overhead and scenic hills in the distance. But it’s much more a Fifties story, taking well-aimed shots at a sizable list of the era’s failings, from sexism and alcoholism to consumerism and conformity. Ills like these were usual suspects in Fifties melodrama, and they receive surprisingly thoughtful treatment in the novel by McPartland, which merits a few words on its own. McPartland was a pulp novelist (titles like Face of Evil, Danger for Breakfast, and The Kingdom of Johnny Cool dominate his bibliography) whose reasonably thoughtful No Down Payment marked a rare foray into serious-minded fiction before his death at the age of forty-seven soon after it was published.

A used-car salesman (Tony Randall) uses the hard sell on a couple that can't really afford his wares.

It’s a truism that Hollywood movies typically streamline, simplify, and expurgate their novelistic sources, but in this case the changes are particularly significant, almost eradicating the depth and detail that make McPartland’s book worth reading. Gone is David’s agonizing over the human cost—obsolete jobs, vanishing paychecks, conscientious workers cast adrift—of the automated efficiency and “progress” provided to businesses by his company’s technologies. Gone is Herm’s heartfelt introspection over Betty’s sincerely held religious belief, which he can’t quite bring himself to share. Reduced to the vanishing point is Jean’s self-lacerating realization that on some level she welcomed Troy’s violent assault, so intricate are the depths of her personality and so droningly bland had her suburban life become.

Not gone but transformed is the minority employee—an African American named Jim in the novel, an Asian American named Iko (Aki Aleong) in the movie—who wants to buy a home in Herm’s white neighborhood. The movie makes it clear that Iko served honorably in the American military during World War II, so the change of the character’s ethnicity was perhaps meant to unmask the racial animosity faced by even a pointedly loyal Japanese American, and to make the point that the evils of bigotry didn’t exclusively target black people. But the alteration is still puzzling.       

These things said, Ritt’s stripped-down version of McPartland’s intriguing novel retains a fair degree of sociopolitical oomph, as one would expect from the director who dealt forthrightly with racism in Edge of the City (1957), social alienation in Hud (1963), sexual violence in The Outrage (1963), and conflict between labor and capital in Norma Rae (1979). Auteurist critics haven’t taken much notice of Ritt, who rated nary a mention in Andrew Sarris’s directorial rankings, and he certainly made some awful pictures (see the 1974 washout Conrack for evidence) in his day. In a Twilight Time leaflet essay, Julie Kirgo calls him “brilliant,” which is a stretch, but she has a point when she describes him as “thematically passionate.”

Ritt also had a knack with actors, at least when they were as gifted as the Woodward and Randall of No Down Payment or the Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier of Paris Blues (1961). Many performances in No Down Payment are distressingly tepid, though. Hunter barely registers; Mitchell relies on disgruntled-loser stereotypes; and Owens comes to momentary life only in the rape scene’s aftermath. Joseph LaShelle’s unexpectedly flat camerawork and lighting offer little assistance.

Young housewife Leola Boone (Joanna Woodward) seeks support and solace in the welcoming kitchen of an older friend (Barbara Rush).

My interest in No Down Payment stems from my fascination with the Fifties and with the kind of community life portrayed in the film, which criticizes the everyday banality of Sunrise Hills while reproducing that banality in its cinematography and set design, which rarely rise above the merely functional. Sunrise Hills is a fictional construct, but its model was surely the string of seven assembly-line housing developments, all called Levittown, built by real-estate mogul William Levitt between 1947 and 1963. No actual Levittown was anywhere near California, but the allusion is reinforced by the fictional community’s name (recalling a highway near the first such town) and its little-boxes look.

Decades ago, I earned extra change as a church organist in the prototypical Levittown on Long Island, deservedly notorious for its plasticine architecture and ticky-tacky aesthetic. The place had been around for some twenty-five years by the time I started visiting, and the stifling uniformity of the original design had been tempered by landscaping, repainting, and other modifications by individual homeowners. Still and all, I’ve never quite gotten over the anodyne sameness of the houses, lawns, and storefronts planted with wearisome regularity along near-identical streets and sidewalks. The people were nice enough, don’t get me wrong, but before too long I fled the area for good.

That’s the place I recognize when I look at Sunrise Hills, and my main complaint against Ritt’s movie is that it seems half in love with the milieu it portrays, applying a blend of tut-tut criticism and indulgent affection that’s all too even-handed for my taste. No Down Payment delivers a mild dose of psychosocial insight, but it pales alongside such towering Fifties critiques as Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Imitation of Life (1959), Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running (1958) and Home from the Hill (1960), and Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Bigger Than Life (1956). Those great films are where the real exposés reside.

David Sterritt is author of numerous books on film, most recently Simply Hitchcock and Roll ’n’ Roll Movies.

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4