One of the darkest portraits of American suburban life in the post-WWII boom of the 1950s is Martin Ritt's all-but-forgotten No Down Payment (1957). This near-masterpiece is one of the few films that dared to scratch beneath the veneer of the pristine, all-white housing developments that began to spring up all across America in the years following the war -- those private little communities unto themselves that maintained their own police force, businesses, and set of rules both written and unwritten. Rows of identical houses, situated so as to create an almost panopticon effect, thanks to the walls of windows and common back yards complete with doors in the fences separating houses. (Imagine Tati's Mon Oncle, just without the humor.) Privacy is limited, and everybody knows each other's business. On the outside, the families, like the houses themselves, appear identical but behind closed doors, dark secrets lurk.
The film also turns a critical eye on the then-new consumer culture - where everything was bought on credit and families found themselves rapidly becoming slaves to their mounting debt. (Early in the film, a gas station owner introduces himself to a new neighbor with, "Stop by the station. I'll give you a credit card.") Yet the no money down offer of the film's title isn't limited to cars, houses and furniture. Love, marriage, and trust are treated as mere commodities to be had on a try-and-buy basis, and many of the negotiations between spouses have a deal-like quality to them.
No Down Payment opens innocently enough with newlywed couple David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter & Patricia Owens) driving down a highway littered with billboards for housing developments, each with a promise of a new and better life. They settle on Sunrise Hills (A Better Place for Better Living!), and it's not long before they are invited to an impromptu barbecue party with their immediate neighbors. (An event that seems to occur nightly.) There we get to meet the trio of dysfunctional families:
Ritt plays quite a bit with our expectations. Many scenes begin with establishing shots of the community accompanied by musical cues right out of Leave it to Beaver. Yet usually within moments we are witnessing some uncomfortable or unpleasant confrontation. The whole effect is quite disconcerting, and seems to be indicative of Ritt's desire to subvert the domestic drama, so popular at the time. Blacklisted writer Ben Maddow's screenplay (fronted by Philip Yordan) fluctuates between sharp, stinging, rapid-fire dialog and eerie monologues that find the characters continually reminding and reassuring each other just how great life is in their little pre-fab paradise. At their regular gatherings the men proudly swap war stories, talk about job security and eating steak every night, while the wives remark at how similar they are to each other (sort of a precursor to The Stepford Wives). The world outside of their self-contained community is of little interest - 1957 was the year of forced integration and the beginning of the space race -- but such matters are not discussed in Sunrise Hills.
|The arrival of the Martins into the community is the catalyst for many of the troubles that follow. As the only man who didn't see any action in the war, boyish David is viewed by the others with suspicion. (That he worked at Los Alamos on the bomb fails to impress the others.) They are jealous of his college degree, and his work as an engineer in automation doesn't do much to win them over. His wife Jean becomes an object of lust, and she must endure both Jerry's drunken groping and Troy's ever-increasing advances. But then again, she's the only woman in the community who proclaims that her man isn't just her husband, but someone she's actually in love with.
Many of the characters suffer from either repressed desire or a lack of fulfillment in their lives. The dream home isn't the solution to their problems, and the cracks in the facade grow larger until the film's final, devastating act that finds traces of civility wiped away. What begins with a drunken party where one character reveals too much ends with a rather nasty rape and a particularly gruesome death. Yet somehow, a happy(ish) ending emerges. (It is a Hollywood picture, after all.) It is quite shocking how the rape trauma is addressed, and how the focus is more on the husband's bruised ego than on the woman herself. Upon learning about the rape, his first reaction is to physically confront her attacker. When this fails (he's no match for the brute) he attempts to rationalize with his wife, who naturally no longer wishes to live next door to a rapist: "Violence comes into a lot of people's lives. You can get hit by a runaway truck. You can get caught in a fire, but that doesn't change you. You don't feel shamed by the fire, you just face it with the people who love you." Therapy, 50s style.
Yet even with its less-than-perfect ending, No Down Payment is still a major work of 1950s cinema that deserves greater recognition. Shot in Cinemascope (giving us a wider angle on its cramped spaces), No Down Payment is the antipode to Ozzie and Harriet - a booze and lust fueled excursion into capitalist ideology that gleefully shatters the illusion of the American Dream.
No Down Payment is not on DVD, though a beautiful letterbox print shows up occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel.