Thursday, July 25, 2013

Oh, those evil suburbs!

I was born in 1972, so I'm too young to remember any of the things that were the formative experiences for all the Baby Boomers. That having been said, there's a good portion of the Boomers who seem to want everything looked at through a prism of what happened in the 1960s. One such thing is the continuing trope that the suburbia that grew up after World War II is nothing more than a conformist den of iniquity, and that anything that stands up and says "No!" to suburbia is somehow automatically virtuous. A good example of this would be many of the IMDb reviews of No Down Payment. The movie is airing tomorrow morning at 9:10 AM on the Fox Movie Channel (and will be getting repeat airings in August and September), so you can judge for yourself.

The movie starts off with young couple David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens) driving in their car over the freeways of southern California, and passing billboards advertising new housing developmens, since California was growing rapidly at the time. The couple, unsurprisingly, is moving into one of those developments themselves: David is a successful engineer; successful enough to move into the suburbs. Soon after moving in, the Martins meet their new neighbors: used car salesman Jerry Flagg and his wife Isabelle (Tony Randall and Sheree North); hardware store manager Herman Kreitzer and his wife Betty (Pat Hingle and Barbara Rush); and frustrated veteran who would be police chief Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell), who's married to Leole (Joanne Woodward).

We see fairly quickly that suburbia isn't all that it's claimed to be, if indeed anybody ever tried to claim that sububria was this flawless place. Our new couple move in on a Sunday morning, and Mrs. Kreitzer is concerned because her husband would rather wash the car on Sunday than go with her and the two children to church! As if anybody would care about that today. Anyhow, the Kreitzers hold a barbecue that night and invite all three of the neighbor couples, which is where Mr. Flagg has too much to drink -- he always has too much to drink -- and practically propositoins Jean. Troy Boone, for his part, is still trapped in World War II, and wants to show off his shrine to his service that he keeps in the garage to Jean.

If you think that's all, you're not even close. The film hits some of the other social problems that were beginning to become more prominent in the late 1950s (No Down Payment was made in 1957) and especially the 1960s. Chief among these is racism, as Herman's Asian-American employee Iko (Aki Aleong) would like to live in their neighborhood since it's a lot closer to work, but there's that problem of his not being white. There's also the simmering issue of the Flaggs' not having any children.

There's a lot going on, almost as though director Martin Ritt had a checklist of issues he wanted to touch upon. The result is a film that's wildly uneven. Tony Randall and Sheree North both give good performances. His character is an alcoholic who doesn't want to be a used-car salesman, instead having wild get-rich-quick schemes that his wife knows are never going to work. She could love him and have a very nice life as a family who are never going to rise above middle class, so she's "resigned" herself to this fact. But her husband won't admit this, and Randall does a find job of portraying a man who's been beaten, but can't bring himself to acknowledge it. The low point are the Flaggs. Joanne Woodward was born in Georgia, and brings what is presumably her original accent to the role, but this only serves to make her sound, if not naïve, then something utterly unrealistic. Carmon Mitchell, meanwhile, is playing a character probably like what Dana Andrews' character in The Best Years of Our Lives would have turned into if Virginia Mayo hadn't left him and he hadn't found Teresa Wright. (Yes, I know Fred Derry didn't want to think about his medals. But once everything else in his life had failed, what would have been left for him?) The only problem is that Mitchell is terribly unsubtle, more or less shouting his way through the part and being a major irritant. The Martins and Kreitzers are almost ciphers, with their conflicts added in because Ritt needed to touch upon certain issues.

All in all, I personally find more not to like in No Down Payment than to praise. Reading the IMDb reviews, however, reveals several posters who seem to think the movie is great simply because it presents suburbia as a dystopia. Perhaps I shouldn't be quite so hard on the movie for its message, seeing as it was made back in the day: Martin Ritt might have been standing athwart history yelling, "Stop!", but he couldn't have been engaging in revisionist history as there was no history to revise at that point. The modern-day reviewers, or all those more recent movies looking back at the 1950s and 1960s, on the other hand....

No Down Payment has, as far as I know, not been released to DVD.

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