No Down Payment (1957)

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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.

4/5 Stars

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957)

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From a corny title comes a  wonderfully corny opening complete with Tony Randall playing the opening notes of the 20th-Century theme and reading off a few cue cards to introduce the film.

What follows is much in the same vein. I sense this is all the doing of Frank Tashlin — the man who found his origins in the animated shorts of the 1940s and subsequently partnered with Jerry Lewis as well as Bob Hope in some of their best pictures.

Here he creates a zany world indeed. I feel inclined to play the comparison game: It’s part Bye Bye Birdie (1963), part Doris Day-Rock Hudson Rom-Com (contemporary numbers like Lover Come Back or  The Thrill of It All both spring to mind), and yet it manages to be a cut above of all of those subsequent contenders.

Tashlin in writing the script and directing has given the film a truly inventive lifeblood which is part satire, part romance, and all comedy in the traditions that he knows best — namely visual comedy. There’s the pomp and circumstance of getting a key to the executive washroom or the appalling unsightliness of some of the garish interiors, not to mention Jayne Mansfield’s prized poodle.

It seems important to start with Rock Hunter since his name is in the title of the picture. Rock (Randall) is a middle-range partner in a New York advertising agency. His aspirations aren’t too grand. He’s in love with his secretary and hopes to be wed soon and his niece lives with him. That’s important.

But everything changes the day that this little man has a big idea that could propel La Salle Agency to the top of the game. Why not get that beloved bodacious personality Rita Marlowe (Mansfield) to promote their “Stay Put Lipstick” brand with her trademark “Oh so kissable lips” and shrieking sigh?

The only problem is getting in contact with the clandestine star who has gone into hiding following a nasty breakup with her latest boyfriend. Although it doesn’t prove overly difficult as Rock has a key in — his niece is the president of the Rita Marlowe fan club and that means something.

Soon he finds himself face-to-face with the superstar lounging in the bathtub on the telephone with her old beau. At the behest of Rita, Rock masquerades as her boyfriend over the phone (as the first living, breathing male who walks through the door). Then she proceeds to give him a smooch on the lips that causes the already popped popcorn in his back pockets to pop again. Amazing.

Rock Hunter’s a little woozy from the experience bringing traffic to a standstill as if he’s just seen a goddess or something. Tabloids get a hold of it and the media frenzy kicks up the dust once the news breaks out about “Lover Doll” aka Rock Hunter who watches his stock skyrocket overnight. What makes it even funnier is the fact that this is no Conrad Birdie. This is a nobody middle-aged executive played by the always lovable often despondent-looking Tony Randall.

His new life involves being accosted in back alleyways by teenyboppers and a row of new public appearances with Rita in order to get her involvement in backing the company’s product. It’s all in a day’s work but to say it strains things with Jenny is putting it lightly.

The narrative is chock full of shameless plugs and bits of self-referential commentary be it Jayne Mansfield’s own The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), Elvis’s “Love Me Tender,” and the romantic hit Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955). Meanwhile, Rita reads lurid Peyton Place in the bubble bath and the inimitable Groucho Marx makes a prominent cameo as Rita’s long lost love. The best phrase by far is the liberal use of “The poop!” It pretty much sums up what you are in for.

Undubitably this is Mansfield’s most notable role and it works because she’s really playing a version of herself, the tabloid icon that she was and one of the purported answers to Marilyn Monroe’s movie stardom. As such she does a fine job with the wacky comedy and it’s true that she too exudes that certain brand of innocent sexuality though she never was in the high caliber films that Marilyn could claim.

Wisecracking Joan Blondell is at it as well as Marlowe’s assistant who still finds a moment or two to wax philosophical about lost love. Tony Randall is just as enjoyable as he’s ever been except he’s a lead instead of a third wheel which proves to be a delightful change of pace.

Possibly the best gag involves an extended intermission or commercial break with Randall lauding the remarkable invention of television which subsequently turns him black and white and cuts off most of his face in its limited 21 inches before readjusting and being overtaken by static.

In just a few seconds of film Tashlin effectively shreds the industry that was slowly taking over for sheer convenience and making the picture shows of old a near dying breed. And of course, not to be outdone there has to be some lip service paid to radio enthusiasts who in themselves were all but dead. Here is a movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously and that plays to its strengths.

3.5/5 Stars

Pillow Talk (1959)

Pillowtalk_posterIt’s the original Rock Hudson Doris Day Rom-Com, with the seemingly perpetual split screen, to match the party line that constantly weaves its way through the story. It’s technicolor, it has an infectious title track, and it’s absurd wackiness somehow adds up to a boy-gets-girl happy ending.

The imposing and dashing Hudson plays songwriter and major playboy Brad Allen, before masquerading as tenderhearted Texan Rex Stetson. But how does he get there? What causes him to play such a ludicrous part? It comes in the form of Jan Morrow, our peppy platinum-haired interior decorator who has had just about enough of her party-line partner, the estimable Mr. Allen.

Her often swanked housekeeper Alma (Thelma Ritter) doesn’t mind eavesdropping and swooning along with all the other impressionable women he romances over the telephone. Jan, on the other, thinks it’s sickening behavior for a man. She would never allow herself to be taken in by such a cad.

Of course, there’s more to the story since one of Jan’s clients, the neurotic millionaire Johnathan Forbes (Tony Randall), is madly in love with her. There’s another wrinkle though, that’s far more important. He knows Allen from his college days. When Brad gets his first view of Jan, she’s an absolute knockout and he wants to win her over, but she hates his guts, at least over the phone. Enter a sweetly sincere Texan and she is swept off her feet surreptitiously.

Brad manages the charade for some time, but for the comedy to work, it must all come crumbling down. In this case, as expected, Ms. Morrow and Mr. Forbes figure things out at almost the same precise moment. It looks like Brad is sunk for good. There’s no hope for such a louse. But then again, if Pillow Talk ended there, it’s audience would be left muttering despairingly and crying inconsolably. The exclamation point comes when Hudson pulls his bride-to-be out of her bed and forcibly carries her through the streets of New York. It sets the stage for some quips perfectly at home in a quaint bedroom comedy plucked out of the 1950s.

Day and Hudson were stupendously popular with the populous and this film would begin their string of pictures together. Although they never reached the excellence, or more aptly, the above-averageness of Pillow Talk, they have remained relatively popular even to this day. Ms. Day was always a fan favorite and rightly so with her impeccably powerful voice, raucous comedic performances, and self-assured charm. And she’s still with us bless her heart! It will undoubtedly be antiquated and overly saccharine to many, but if you have a soft spot for either  Rock or Doris, then enjoy it without reservations. It’s a rather entertaining guilty pleasure.

3.5/5 Stars

Brad: Look, I don’t know what’s bothering you, but don’t take your bedroom problems out on me.

Jan: I have no bedroom problems. There’s nothing in my bedroom that bothers me.

Brad: Oh-h-h-h. That’s too bad.

Review: The Odd Couple (1968)

8ca16-oddcouple1By now The Odd Couple is rather like returning to an old group of friends. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau never had a better pairing than their turns as Felix Ungar and Oscar Madison. The roles seem to fit each man to the tee or at least they make them their own. Lemmon is as hilarious as ever playing the neat freak, hypochondriac who was recently divorced. He drove his wife crazy because he cooked better than her, cleaned more, and was allergic to her perfume. She had to put on his aftershave instead. Then, there’s Matthau reprising his stage role of Oscar the slob of a sportswriter with an affinity for messiness. Droopy jowls courtesy of Matthau. Put them together and you have some of the greatest comedic fireworks ever, and it’s so simple. You see, all the poker playing gang is nervous that Felix will commit suicide, which he attempts during the film’s opening sequence, but he cannot get the window open. Thus, Oscar obliges to take in his buddy with the rest of the buddies keeping a wary eye on Felix. It’s hilarious to watch them because they really care about Felix, but they have no idea how to act around him. They think every move will be his last.

Oscar does not know what he’s gotten into since Felix cleans up after him, follows him with an ashtray when he smokes, does the dishes, vacuums, sprays air freshener incessantly, and even distracts Oscar from a triple pay while telling him the evening’s dinner plans. Then there’s Felix allergies, his high maintenance, and yes, his pouting. He even ruins weekly poker night with cigar smoke replaced by fresh air and disinfected playing cards.

Bring in the twittering Pigeon Sisters Gwendolyn and Cecily and you’re bound to have more laughs, until Felix the killjoy hurts the mood. Now we truly begin to see Oscar’s sour side which was mostly saved for his former wife Blanche. Now it is specially reserved for Felix and his maddening cleanliness that’s gone too far. Oscar has a nervous breakdown and blows his top chasing Felix out. But Oscar is not a bad guy, Felix is his friend after all, and so enter the poker buddies once more to go searching for Felix. He has been taken in by the Pigeons and the two friends make up. As it turns out, the two men rubbed off on each other, but there’ no chance of completely changing them. They will always be The Odd Couple, just separate now.

The Odd Couple has such a wonderful mythology surrounding it thanks to Neil Simon’s play, the film adaption, and then the television show. Furthermore, it is one of those very special cases that was great on both the big and small screen, since Jack Klugman and Tony Randall were wonderful in their own right. Focusing on this film, the dialogue is not forcing the humor, and it ultimately leads to genuinely funny lines coming out of the circumstances. The poker playing buddies are a riot from Florida-bound Vinnie (John Fielder) to nervous cop Murray (Herb Edelman). The opening of the film is made by Neal Hefti’s theme, and I’ve got to say, the sequence where Felix has his sinus attack is priceless. Without fail it puts me in stitches everytime as the weirded out Oscar looks on along with everyone else. I cannot help but love The Odd Couple. By now it’s too ingrained in me and that’s fine by me.

4.5/5 Stars