Suppressive Suburbia: Review of No Down Payment 1957
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By Adam Tawfik
In 1945, most Americans felt that happy days were here again. After nearly twenty years of dire economic hardship and four years of a psychologically and physically catastrophic war, Americans were eager to celebrate. They finally had the finances to live large. As the economy exploded and emphasis on mass consumption increased, a newly created large middle-class moved out into the spacious suburbs where they could have more property and goods than ever before.
Theoretically these new communities perfectly embodied democratic principles. As historian Lizabeth Cohen explains, “As Americans lived better and on a more equal footing with their neighbors, it was expected the dream of a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved.” That vision did not really pan out; instead, many new sociological problems emerged.
Although the majority of the popular culture (particularly TV sitcoms) at the time celebrated (or at least didn’t question) suburban living, there were a sizable number of films that showed the darker side of this supposed paradise. While it hasn’t received a fraction of the attention of films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life (1956), or The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), No Down Payment, a 1957 Twentieth-Century-Fox film, provided one of the sharpest and most critical treatises on the new living model, tackling a myriad of social issues through the trials and tribulations of four suburban families.
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Everything starts off auspiciously. Newlyweds David (Jeffrey Hunter), an up-and-coming engineer, and his pretty wife Jean (Patricia Owens) venture out of the city to the countryside where they pass by a succession of advertisements for suburban developments, all promising a better, more plentiful lifestyle. They settle on Sunrise Hills whose slogan is “the happy ending to your house hunting.”
In public, neighbors Betty (Barbara Rush) and Herm (Pat Hingle), Isabelle (Sheree North) and Jerry (Tony Randall), and Leola (Joanne Woodward) and Troy (Cameron Mitchell) gush about Sunrise Hills, almost to the point of obsession. Behind closed doors, the couples reveal feelings of despair, deflation, and entrapment in their environment. Sunrise Hills (and suburbia) is neither happy nor the end to these characters’ house hunting, as no one’s ambitions are sufficiently fulfilled and all of them are already living well beyond their means. These same sentiments extend to the marriages as well, although levels of unhappiness and dysfunction vary.
As the plot progresses, the characters’ actions reveal that Sunrise Hills is more elitist and racist than its down-to-earth façade of the neighborhood barbecue parties leads one to believe. Troy and Leola, two uneducated Tennessee country folks, feel maligned by the other residents. Leola sequesters herself in her home while Troy, a decorated GI, aggressively manifests his resentment towards the college educated David and Jean.
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Meanwhile Herm, a kindly and unpretentious general-appliance store owner, genuinely wants to help his employee Ito (Aki Aleong), a hard-working Japanese family man (who is virtually identical to the average suburbanite in every regard except race), move into Sunrise Hills, but caves to the protestations of the supposedly religious Betty, who fears the objections the neighbors will raise and the potential loss of their property value. She later sees the errors of her ways and prods Herm to do the right thing in her characteristically bullying manner.
Wheeler Winston Dixon, one of the few scholars to give Payment critical attention- praising it as “one of the most compelling dystopian visions of the 1950s” – argues that Payment through its “noirish black and white lighting, brutal mise-en-scene,” single-mindedly materialistic characters, and the frantic paranoia of keeping up appearances, fits into the parameters of film noir. Certainly this valid argument can be substantiated by previous works of two of the film’s key personnel: screenwriter Philip Yordan (alias Ben Maddow) penned The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of the darkest, most unrelenting film noirs and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who won an Oscar® for photographing the stylistic classic Laura (1944).
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An equally compelling case can be made for examining the film in terms of “American kitchen sink realism,” with its ominously sparse uniformly charmless houses, and its long drawn-out scenes where a few characters take center stage to reveal their angsts and desires. LaShelle was also the cinematographer for Marty (1955), arguably the most critically acclaimed and financially profitable film of this type. In Payment, his claustrophobic camera work counteracts the typical glossiness of the Cinemascope widescreen process. LaShelle’s juxtaposition of tight close-ups and intensely dark shadows in the rape scene is one of the most innovative means of dodging the censors, whilst retaining the gravity and psychologically harrowing implications of this heinous act.
Upon its initial release, Payment generally received commendable but not enthusiastic notices. The New York Times reviewer scoffed that, “Despite the producers’ frank and forthright approach, a viewer is left with the feeling that these harried folks do not represent the average, that their stories are only partially told and that undue emphasis is placed on unpleasant aspects of their lives,” thereby reducing the material to melodrama.
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The ensemble cast, under the direction of Martin Ritt, a former actor and teacher at the prestigious New York-based Actors School (while he was unfairly blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 50s), justifiably received rave reviews. Joanne Woodward got best-in-show notices, although these were overshadowed by the accolades of her tour-de-force headlining role in another controversial film The Three Faces of Eve released one month before Payment. Martin Ritt biographer Gabriel Miller conjectured that this was due to Woodward’s training at the Actors Studio, making her the most compatible cast member with Ritt’s methods.
While Woodward’s combination of childlike vulnerability and wild sexuality is sublime, the other actors provide equally vivid performances. Sheree North, who was wrongly stigmatized as a 50s cheesecake bombshell a la Marilyn Monroe in spite of excelling in a variety of character parts for over thirty years, excels in her first dramatic assignment. Sporting a bob of mousy brown hair, North’s fawn-eyed expressions, whispery voice and hunched shoulders convey the pent-up repression and helplessness of Isabel.
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Barbara Rush, another highly underrated actress who was mostly used as eye candy in films, strips away most of her otherworldly glamour, portraying a stern and strident Christian with abrasive gusto. Pat Hingle, a burly theatre actor who went on to become one of the more recognizable Hollywood character actors, nicely underplays the sanest character who acts as the peacekeeper of the community.
Cameron Mitchell, best known for the 1960s and 70s TV Western The High Chaparral, gives a raw and frightening performance as the angry, volatile PTSD-afflicted mechanic. Patricia Owens, a normally competent actress, delivers a stellar performance as an intelligent and sympathetic (but very sexy) woman with a slightly checkered past who is trying to establish a more respectable life.
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The biggest surprise is Tony Randall, best known for his neurotically straight laced characterizations in the Doris Day- Rock Hudson comedies and the TV series The Odd Couple. He significantly departs from that persona, rendering a pathetic, sleazy characterization of an adulterous, alcoholic used-car salesman, constantly devising futile get-rich-quick schemes.
While only a handful of people seem to have seen Payment since its initial release, those who have regard it with nothing but the highest praise. Notable in this select group is David Bowie. In a 1967 correspondence with his first American fan, long before he became a megastar or created satirical, astute songs about America, Bowie cited Payment as “a great film, but rather depressing if it is a true reflection of The American Way Of Life.”
This section contains SPOILERS
Many critics complained about what they considered to be a “pat” ending, where three of the four couples (plus Ito and his family) cheerily depart from church. Martin Ritt expressed regrets over the film’s conclusion, citing Twentieth-Century-Fox executives’ trepidation of offending the suburban audience. They issued this following statement to the press: “Church-goers, despite the sensational aspects of the picture [it includes a rape], will find it worth while (sic) since the picture opens and closes with church-going scenes.”
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Actually, the film technically doesn’t begin or end with these church-going scenes. In fact, the finale is more ambiguous and downbeat as it closes with Leola departing Sunrise Hills in a taxi, looking back in sorrow, with the camera sinisterly lingering on the misleadingly cheery Sunrise Hills sign. Even the overtly chirpy churchgoing scenes can (and should) be interpreted with skepticism. Sandwiched in-between many stark dystopian scenes, the symmetry of the church scenes creates the impression that the characters’ problems continually circulate in ebbs and flows. Everybody suppresses their true emotions to give the appearance of a happy, well-adjusted suburban family, but ultimately all their grievances will resurface again and again.
–NYT review of No Down Payment
– Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia
-Gabriel Miller, The Life and Films of Martin Ritt
-Colin Young, “The Hollywood War of Independence,” Film Quarterly 1959