When a film seems to materialize in front of you coming out of nowhere and subsequently moves you, it seems worthy to try and champion it to others who might also be pleasantly surprised. But first, I believe an acknowledgment of director Martin Ritt is in order because I’m not sure how much adulation he usually gets amid the myriad of prominent Hollywood workhorses out there.
Though he first started out in the theater and then television during The Red Scare years, Ritt ultimately transitioned to movies with a body of work full of variety that has all but stood the test of time on numerous accounts. Highlights include a six-film collaboration with Paul Newman including the likes of The Long, Hot Summer (1958), Paris Blues (1961), Hud (1963, and Hombre (1967). Other noteworthy successes many will know are The Spy Who Came in From The Cold (1965), Sounder (1972), and Norma Rae (1979).
He is most definitely an adherent to progressive, socially conscious filmmaking that, while never flashy in formalistic aspects, is nevertheless, chock full of depth for its commitment to humanist storytelling. It’s meant to ring true and touch on subjects that pertain to real people and the world-at-large captured through a lens of stark realism. To his credit, Ritt would never claim the title “Auteur” because he himself spent time as an actor and understood how collaborative such an art form is.
That brings us to the picture at hand, No Down Payment, which while being one of his earlier directorial efforts for film, already has his sensibilities in place. There’s nothing flashy about the picture per se but it readily digs into issues that feel uncommon and cutting edge for the very fact that we rarely see them portrayed in the 1950s. This film provides a very special opportunity and I was more than happy to oblige.
To put it succinctly, our story takes place in the residential neighborhood of Sunrise Hills. What we get is a disillusioning portrait of 1950s suburbia specifically in Los Angeles, that beacon of post-war middle-class living, observing the overlapping existence of four couples.
I enjoy how everything seems to be underlined by party chatter, Cowboys and Indians on the television, and groovy rockability — all integral parts of the ubiquitous soundtrack of the suburbs. But there’s also a veneer with two layers. The outward-facing street view with white picket fences and barbeques with the neighbors and then what’s actually going on, either when the doors are closed or when you can’t contain it anymore and rancor slowly asserts itself. Underneath we also soon realize that everybody is afraid of something.
A young couple just moving in is brought into the fold of the community. The husband (Jefferey Hunter) works as an up-and-coming electrical engineer while his pretty wife (Patricia Owens) urges him to get in a more lucrative field like sales so they can grow their social status.
If your image of Tony Randall is a nice guy or a hypochondriac, try on a philandering day drunk car salesman for size. Jerry Flagg constantly has his wife Isabelle (Sheree North) exasperated because he’s always strapped for cash and never dependable, with aspirations that keep him constantly flocking to the next big idea. Of course, he’s never able to see any of them to fruition.
Arguably, the least done up of any of the husbands is Troy (Cameron Mitchell), a war hero and Tennessee native who currently works as a car mechanic but soon hopes to be brought on as the local police chief. In fact, he’s banking on it. His wife, Leola Boone (Joanne Woodward) is intent on it as well since he’s promised they can have a child once he has greater job stability. She’s tried to bury painful memories of the baby she was once forced to give away. They too are plagued by marital bickering and late night alcohol consumption.
Last of all is Herman Kreitzer (prolific TV actor Pat Hingle) and his wife Betty (Barbara Rush). While she takes the children to church on Sunday, he stays at home and washes his car out on the street. Otherwise, there’s little discord in the house as he’s a loving husband and father who runs an appliance store and is a member of the local homeowner’s board.
Ritt’s picture, with yet another script fronted by Philip Yordan and actually written by Ben Maddow, has innumerable topics of interest. However, two that were the most intriguing to me had to do with the Kreitzers. Because it just so happens that Herman’s best employee, a man named Iko (Japanese-American though played by Aki Aleong), requested help in getting his family a home in a predominantly white neighborhood. As is, he currently has a taxing commute to work every day.
And though Herman is a good man, he’s hesitant to get involved knowing full well that housing developments have long been run by de facto laws of segregation. L.A. was like any other area where African-Americans were in places like Watts and Japanese-Americans were concentrated in Little Tokyo and even Boyle Heights for a time. That’s just the way it was. You stayed with your kind.
People wouldn’t like it one bit. Off the top of his head, he knows Troy, who fought in the Pacific, wouldn’t be too keen on a “Japanese” living in the neighborhood. So Herman ultimately brings the conversation to his church-going wife who voices similar apprehension (“Do you think you’re ready to have a Japanese as a neighbor?”). It’s this conversation over the kitchen table that causes him to reconsider. Because you see we already know he’s not a churchgoer and part of the reason we can guess has to do with the hypocrisy that is often so easy to find fault with.
That brings us back to Iko and his family. As Herman sees it, what good is a church if it doesn’t lend a helping hand to someone who needs it. How can you say you’re a “Good Christian” and not do anything to help these people? The issue is hardly resolved then and there but it’s a start. At least, in this case, we get the hint of closure in the end. Other threads aren’t nearly as sanguine.
It’s fitting that we return to an establishing shot of that perfect piece of the suburbs and all our main players are at church the following Sunday. Except for one, it means a long drive in a taxi cab to who knows where. While the others will make a go of trying to preserve their dreams, this lonely individual’s exodus is a reminder of how quickly our aspirations can crumble.