Back in 2014 and 2015, I did a series of reviews that I called Embracing the Melodrama, in which I reviewed some of the best (and worst) melodramas ever made. All together, I reviewed 186 films as a part of Embracing the Melodrama, everything from Sunrise to Reefer Madness to The Towering Inferno to Cocaine: One Man’s Seduction. I had so much fun doing it that I’ve decided to do it again.
No, don’t worry. I’m not going to attempt to review 186 films this time. Instead, for Embracing The Melodrama Part III, I am going to limit myself to reviewing 8 films. I’ll be posting one Embracing the Melodrama review a day, from now until next Sunday.
Let’s kick things off with 1957’s No Down Payment, a film about life in … THE SUBURBS!
(cue dramatic music)
Is there any place in America that’s more dramatic? Is it any wonder that, since the early 50s, films have regularly been using the suburbs as an example of everything that’s apparently wrong with America? Every year sees at least one major film about how terrible life is in the suburbs. Last year, for instance, George Clooney directed a film called Suburbicon, which was regularly cited as a possible Oscar contender before it was released and everyone was reminded of the fact that George Clooney is a terrible director. That said, I can understand why filmmakers continue to be drawn to the suburbs. Secret affairs. Dangerous drugs. Duplicitous children. Fractured families. Barbecuing alcoholics. Undercover occultists. You can find them all in the suburbs!
No Down Payment opens with David (Jeffrey Hunter) and Jean Martin (Patricia Owens) driving down a California highway and looking at the billboards that dot the landscape. Every billboard advertises a new community, inviting people to make a new and better life away from the crowded city. David and Jean smile, amused by how blatant all of the ads are. That’s when they see the billboard that’s advertising their new home:
Sunrise Hill Estates
A Better Place For Better Living
Soon, David and Jean are moving into their new home and meeting their new neighbors. It turns out that most of the houses in Sunrise Hill Estates are available for “no down payment” and the majority of the residents are struggling financially. Though David may look at all of his neighbors and say, “Looks like everybody here is living a wonderful life,” the truth is something far different.
(If David’s line sound a bit too on the nose and obvious, that’s because almost all of the dialogue in No Down Payment was too on the nose and obvious. As a side note, “on the nose” is an extremely strange expression.)
David’s neighbors include:
Herm Kreitzer (Pat Hingle) and his wife, Betty (Barbara Rush). Herm owns an appliance store and sits on the town council. Herm is gruff but likable. He’s the leader of his neighborhood and he welcomes the Martins with a backyard party. Herm’s employee, Iko (Aki Aleong), wants to move to Sunrise Hill but no one is willing to give him a reference because he’s not white.
Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) and his wife, Leola (Joanne Woodward). We know that Troy is going to be trouble because he’s played by Cameron Mitchell. We know that we’re going to like Leola because she’s played by Joanne Woodward. Troy’s an auto mechanic and a veteran. He wants to be appointed the chief of police but the town is reluctant to hire him because he doesn’t have a college education. Leola wants to have a child but Troy says that they can’t even think about that until he has a good job.
And then there’s Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) and his wife, Isabelle (Sheree North). Jerry is a used car salesman and he’s also a drunk. Jerry spends most of the movie hitting on other women and embarrassing Isabelle. Jerry has no impulse control and, as a result, he’s heavily in debt. His only hope is that he can convince a family to buy an expensive car that they really don’t need. When last I checked, that’s what a used car salesman is supposed to do.
The film deals with a lot of issues — prejudice, sexism, economic insecurity — that are still relevant today. Unfortunately, the film itself is a bit slow and what was shocking in the 50s seems rather jejune today. Watching the film, you get the feeling that, as with many films of the 50s, all of the interesting stuff is happening off-screen. That said, the film has an interesting cast. Jeffrey Hunter and Patricia Owens are a bit dull as the Martins but then you’ve got their neighbors! Any film that features Cameron Mitchell glowering can’t be all bad but the best performance comes from Tony Randall, who is memorably sleazy and desperate as Jerry Flagg. For a fun experiment, watch this film right before watching Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Tomorrow, we’ll continue to embrace the melodrama with 1961’s Common Law Wife!