“No Down Payment” (1957) is an unblinking, fly-on-the-wall look at 1950s suburbia. This depiction has a sharp and beguiling quality of self-awareness, which one senses was careful and deliberate. There are issues raised, but no real messages that are not tempered the by the characters’ helplessness to be anything other than what they are.
The very examination of suburbia as a topic might be considered dated, as dated as the copper Jell-O molds on Sheree North’s kitchen wall, but the outlook of the movie is bravely modern. In some respects, issues discussed here, like the precarious financial balancing act in a credit-powered economy, are still strangling us today.
Long post. Spoilers ahead.
“Strangers When We Meet” (1960) here. I wish I had known about “No Down Payment” at the time I wrote about that movie, because they would have made great companion pieces. They are both about suburbia in Southern California, the car culture, a young post-war population coming of age as the 1950s “Silent Generation”. They also have in common the actress Barbara Rush. In “Strangers” she plays the wife of Kirk Douglas, a woman comfortably settled in her suburban kitchen, but ambitious for her husband to excel and obtain even more for them. She is devastated to learn of his extramarital affair.
In “No Down Payment”, Barbara Rush is the more settled wife of Pat Hingle, who is a more modestly successful owner of an appliance store. They appear to have a happy marriage, though not without stress. The two movies have a couple of important differences, however. One is that “Strangers” is in color and has a more glossy look to it, a more soap-opera storyline. It is focused more tightly on the extramarital affair of Kirk Douglas and Kim Novak. The other characters are like satellites that bounce off their relationship.
“No Down Payment” was directed by Martin Ritt, who had a particular knack for introspective films. He was one of those directors who ran up against blacklisting in the 1950s (a couple of the screenwriters on this project were blacklisted), and we'll be covering at least two other Ritt-directed movies this summer.
This is an ensemble piece. The acting is very good, and the writing is excellent. It has a quiet, black and white look, and being the earlier picture by three years there is a less cynical view of the suburban jungle. However, the examination of this world is refreshingly straightforward, and manages to take what is a familiar landscape a turn it into a strange new world. The so-called Silent Generation may have been less political and more secretive about its anxieties, but we can see that there was a lot of self evaluation going on.
Randall’s money troubles are a major theme for the 1950s suburban couple and hence the title of the movie.
“No money down. Nothing to lose. Just change your name. Go away. Hide. Quit your job. And the finance company will never know where you are…. We’re only 25 years in debt.”
Pat Hingle affably consoles Hunter on the worry of a mortgage, "Nobody in this housing development is allowed to own a home they can actually afford."
And these houses are cracker boxes. What would they have thought of today's McMansions?
This is meant to be humorous party conversation but there’s also a very strong indictment against the new 1950s economy, which has implications today. Jeffrey Hunter, the new guy on the block, marvels “Twenty years ago none of us could have afforded a house like this. I think we were born in the right time.”
Pat Hingle has another viewpoint, maintaining that the Greatest Generation was perhaps the generation behind the eight ball. He talks of their youth of poverty, of going on relief in the Depression, “I don’t call that being born at the right time.”
But he concedes, “I guess we do have more security than our parents ever had,” and, “there’s not many guys that have to sweat for a living, not anymore, not in the States.”
He fixes Tony Randall’s son’s radio, pulling out a screwdriver from his inner suit coat pocket -- must be a trait of engineers -- and tinkers with something magical called a transistor. No microchips yet, but we’re getting there.
We old movie buffs love to watch classic films as an insight to a particular era gone by, but most of these films, whether it’s a movie about the 1930s or the 1940s or any era, are not self aware or self-conscious about that era. When Buster Keaton chases a streetcar he is not saying to the camera “look -- it’s the 1920s and there are not going to be streetcars in another 20 years.” “No Down Payment” is totally, deliciously conscious of its era. It’s almost as if they are picking things out of the air on purpose and putting them in the box and saying, “This is what we’re going to seal up in a time capsule to tell people what we’re like in 1957.”
The floor plan in the houses is identical, right down to where they choose to put their television sets. Their children sit in front of the TVs like zombies. Ten years later they will "tune in, turn on, drop out," but that zen-like self indulgence and self absorption all began cross-legged in front of the TV when they were kids.
Tony Randall spends money he does not have to buy his son a bike, because every new thing his son gets is a trophy to announce to others his own success.
The wives welcome the new neighbors with the manta that their development is a “A great place to raise children.” It truly is an incubator of sorts.
When we first see them, they appear happy with each other, but later on his dissatisfaction with his life manifests itself into dissatisfaction with her.
"How can you call yourself a good Christian and speak like that?" he shouts, still mad at her for wanting him to go to church.
"Don't you bring the church into this."
"What good is the church if it can't teach a person to lend a helping hand to some human being that really deserves it." She throws the prejudice right back in his face where it belongs. The problem of racial prejudice may exist in society, and it may exist in the town council, but first and foremost, he must wipe it out in himself and have the courage of his convictions. First one must have courage, and then one must have convictions.
“Though Americans took great pride in talking about their individualism, he [de Tocqueville] noted, their special genius -- and the source of their greatest potential weakness -- lay in their ways of cooperation with each other…creating a dictatorship of the majority. ‘In times of equality,’ he wrote, ‘no matter what political laws men devise for themselves, it is safe to foresee that trust in common opinion will become a sort of religion, with the majority as the prophet.’”
Though social conformity is a strong force, the money angle is what drives them more fiercely. Tony Randall, tragic with a drink in his hand and a smile on his lips and that wonderfully giddy giggle, "what this country needs is easy credit. No man should have to pay cash for anything. No money down is the secret to prosperity...if only the banks would loosen up, every man could have anything he wants, not when these old and washed up -- now, when he's young and washed up."
Interesting that at their backyard barbecue they first dance to a song on a hi fi called “Something's Got to Give,” a 1940s swing number here in a more sedate arrangement. These people are not kids. Rock n’ roll is not their era. However, later on in the movie they dance to a “rock” number called “The Drive-in Rock.” Car culture and rock n’ roll in one flick of the switch by the director.
More observations on contemporary society by Joanne Woodward who recalls a little brother who died of pneumonia, "Just think, today he could've taken one shot of penicillin and he could've gotten over it like a cold."
No babysitters. They leave their kids with each other or leave them alone. Tony Randall gets into trouble with a shady business deal and runs away in the middle of a party at his house, and his wife and Pat Hingle follow. The party continues in their home without them, their neighbors unconcerned about their absence. Their little boy gets up and wants a drink so the presiding grownups give him a bottle of Coke.
Today we might hesitate over a myriad of legal repercussions of staying in a neighbor's home, unasked, with their child unattended by the parents. Today we would hesitate giving 8 ounces of sugar and caffeine in the middle of the night to a small child, knowing we would have to probably scrape him off the ceiling.
Hingle makes a prescient remark, "Pretty soon a guy’s going to have to have a master's degree to clean toilets."
Mr. Mitchell also kicks in the TV tube. Now we know that the earth is cracking. When you've destroyed your TV, your whole world is shot.
By the way, another subtle point being made by the scriptwriter and director: the little daughter of Hingle and Rush interrupts while they are trying to comfort and get the story out of Patricia Owens. She refers to the new neighbor lady by her first name. Author William Manchester also had an observation on this:
“The term ‘polite society’ fell into disuse because society wasn’t polite any more. The increasing use of first names was extraordinary. Once it had been limited to family and friends…the suburbanite who arrived home to find her bathroom being used by a strange boy might be greeted, ‘Hi, Doris.’ In suburbia, this was looked upon as just friendliness. Any objection to it would be regarded as snobbish and resented.” (pp.782-783.)
Hingle considers all of this, Randall’s alcoholism and his money problems chasing the dream, Cameron Mitchell's violent reaction to not measuring up in post-war society, the racial prejudice that faces Iko.
"I guess owning a house with a deep freeze is not the answer." He wants to know how they got to be where they are. "Whatever it is that makes us afraid to help Iko. That makes Jerry afraid that he's not going to make it big. That makes Troy afraid he's going to be a nobody unless he's wearing some kind of uniform. Afraid, afraid. Now if we can find out what that is, I think we've got the answer."