No Down Payment: Martin Ritt’s Suburban Tale, Starring Joanne Woodward, Jeffrey Hunter, Barbara Rush

The ultimate cinematic statement of suburbanism can be found in Martin Ritt’s No Down Payment, a typical Twentieth-Century Fox melodrama of the late 1950s.

One of Hollywood’s most consciously sociological efforts, the film presents a myriad of four marriages, meant to be statistically representative. The narrative is set in a Los Angeles suburb, “Sun Rise Hills,” with a huge sign describing it as, “The Happy Ending to Your House-Hunting.”

The background music suggests the transition from the cramped and strangling Big City to the spacious and sun filled Suburbia. The score begins with harsh and unmelodic strains that gradually blend into more pleasant pastoral notes. Centering on leisure, not work, the story begins on a Sunday morning as members of the community leave church. Betty Kreitzer (Barbara Rush) reproaches her husband Herman (Pat Hingle) for washing his car on Sunday. What will the neighbors say “Daddy’ll go to hell and burn up,” says their son.

Herman believes in God but practices a more privatized religion; he doesn’t need “some mealy-mouthed reverend to speak for Him.” The strain subsides, as there’s a lot to be done: the Kreitzers are giving a barbecue party tonight. The outsiders-newcomers, who set the story in motion, are electronic engineer David Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) and his attractive wife Jean (Patricia Owens). They are the only couple that bought the house with no down payment. Jean sports a good eye for she selected David over Ned because she saw him as a “born leader.” But David is modestly ambitious, “I don’t have to outsmart or beat down anybody else to live.” For Jean, however, he is still “a schoolboy at the lab” who needs a little push. As in every conversation between them, she has the last word: “Growing time is getting close. If you want to get over your new ideas, you’ll have to fight.”

A company man, David would go as far as the rules of the game permit. “You’re not playing tennis; success in the business world is not a game,” says Jean in a manner that hints that, if he will not fight, she will fight him. David’s two recent promotions are not sufficient for Jean, who wishes he would think “a little more aggressively and push a little harder.” Jean has always been the more aggressive one; “if I hadn’t proposed, we might never have been married.” Jean outmaneuvered David. The only reason she dated Ned was “to get David to act.” “It’s a man’s world,” says Jean, “We have to use all the ammunition we have.”

Each couple represents a different segment of the population, thus experiencing different conflicts. The first is a Southern couple, transplanted Tennessee hillbillies Troy (Cameron Mitchell) and Leola (Joanne Woodward) Boone. A War hero, Troy works in a gas station but, upwardly mobile, he desires a better position as a police officer. Troy has spent too many years in too many places; now he wants to “buckle down in one spot, the only way to make good.” However, lacking formal education, he is turned down for the job. Humiliated and depressed, Troy turns to the bottle.

The uneducated Leola has desperate yearnings for motherhood, but Troy lacks respect for her and treats her like a kid. He always felt she was a tramp; when she got pregnant, he was not sure it was his baby. Troy thinks she should befriend Jean; “you can learn from her.” However, Leola, who lacks self-esteem, feels, “why should Jean waste time with me, a lonely dissatisfied woman” When Troy charges, “Why can’t you run a house like any other woman” her response is, “why can’t you act like a husband, instead of a top sergeant” Troy runs his house as if it were the last Marine outpost on Guadalcanal.” He loves “to lecture people, tell ’em what to do and how to do it.” He even tells his wife how to make love!

The film reflects the increasing importance of college degrees in the 1950s. Troy believes that the Martins are “the lucky ones, everything comes easy to them.” “They deserve it,” says Leola, “they’re both college graduates.” Isabelle Flagg (Sheree North) wants her husband to work in a new line, but at 35, “he’s too old to start at the bottom,” and “these companies prefer men fresh out of college.” It is a transitional time in the occupational marketplace: of the four men, David is the only representative of the new professional class. Jerry Flaggs (Tony Randall), a used car salesman, suffers from a drinking problem and, worse, grand delusions of making big money fast.

A dreamer, Jerry’s fantasies are fed by popular culture: he hopes his son Mike would go on a quiz show and win $64,000.  For Jerry, living in this neighborhood is “only a stopover,” his dream is to move in a fine neighborhood, “where important people live.” In the meantime, Jerry drinks because “it makes me feel I’m somebody.”

The Kreitzers’ marital union is rather stable. Herman is an amiable, rational man who manages a hardware store. He finds himself at odds with his seemingly sensitive wife, not over religion but interracial integration. Allegedly liberal, they disagree over the question of helping a Japanese American salesman buy a home in their neighborhood. “I am a G.I. Joe, I qualify,” claims the industrious Iko Matuko (Aki Aleong), acknowledging the exclusivity of suburbia as a white and middle-class invention, protecting itself against the intrusion of foreign elements, i.e., any” ethnic minorities. “It’s not our credit that’s holding it up,” says Iko, it’s “lack of prestige.” Herman holds that “If a guy is good enough to work here, he ought to be good enough to live here.” But Betty can’t bring herself to ask Leola and Isabelle to “have a Japanese for a neighbor.” She did not mind going to their house for dinner, because it was “their neighborhood,” but “sitting and living next-door aren’t the same.”

The film thus shows one of the worst effects of conformity, “the fear to act,” even when it is for the right cause. Over-conformity is an allusion to McCarthyism and its political witch hunting in the 1950s (director Martin Ritt was blacklisted).

All four women are housewives, though the fact that none works is not a major issue, since it’s consistent with the dominant ideology of the 1950s. Burdened with raising two children, Isabelle has tried to work, but she has no marketable skills and, more importantly, working would “crush” Jerry, damage his ego.

As in A Letter to Three Wives,” a working wife at the time was perceived as a severe blow to masculinity and patriarchal order. “Just tell me what to do,” asks the helpless Jerry in a weak moment. “You’re a man, you’re supposed to know what to do,” says Isabelle. She is a victim of over-socialization, the type of woman who believes, “it’s a wife’s fault when a husband has to chase around.”

The film abounds with “message” speeches, revealing various phobias and contradictions in dominant culture. As in Shadow of a Doubt,” there is obsession with being an “average American.” Herman tells his wife: “We are what insurance companies call, ‘an average family.'” “Stop blaming it on bad luck,” says Isabelle to Jerry, “You’re just another guy, like I’m just another housewife. Nothing big or wonderful is ever going to happen to us.” But Isabelle also blames herself: “Jerry always had big dreams and I went along, encouraging his false hopes.” Now she feels guilty for “never let him admit that we were two ordinary people who would never have much.”

The four couples spend their leisure in joined barbecue parties, dancing, gossiping, and lusting after each other. Suburbia is shown to be like self-imprisonment, a uniformed claustrophobic world; they very seldom go out. Conformity to the rules seems to be the name of the game. “Each group of houses set a pattern,” says Jean, “and everyone living in this group has to fall on line or they’re ignored.”

But who is the leader, who sets the pattern?

Jean holds that there is one strong family in each group that sets the style and the others follow. In this group, the leaders are the Kreitzers. Herman is described as “a solid citizen,” and Betty “right out of ‘Good Housekeeping.'” However, in a characteristic Hollywood manner, the specific ethnic background of the Kreitzers, their Jewishness, is ignored.

Every activity must be performed according to the rules. For instance, Dr. Greenspun says that it is a bad habit for children to eat in front of the TV set. Isabelle also checks with the doctor the amounts of liquor Jerry consumes to make sure he is “strictly a social drinker.” Rationality means calculating moves and planning for the future, a context in which feelings are obstacles. David used to think that producing children occurs in the natural course of events,” but is corrected by his wife, “Children don’t just happen. Today’s the fifteenth. I couldn’t be readier!”

As in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the War heroes have become victims as soon as their military service was over– many of the fighters lack education and professional skills. During the War, David worked on electric computers and promoted his own career: His outfit never saw action. By contrast, Troy, who has “enough medals to open a hock shop,” sacrificed his life in combat. “Only the civilians want to forget the war,” says Troy, “The guys who lived it got it tattooed.” If he did not have his memories, he would “crawl in my car and turn on the exhaust pipe.”

The two less successful men, Jerry and Troy, resent the pervasive trends of bureaucratization and specialization. “I don’t like being an organization man,” says Troy, “I like to make my own decisions,” reflecting the influence of William F. Whyte’s 1955 book, The Organization Man. But in order to succeed one has to be an organization man. Troy is a man of the past in other ways; he refuses to use credit cards. Jerry also rejects the benefits of a secure job with a steady paycheck. He doesn’t want to be like David, because he is a company man. Even David, the prototypical company man, feels at times “uncomfortable in a group,” but his wife urges him “to spend more time with
people.”

The ranch houses, neat and comfortable on the outside, are really unattractive. They are so close to each other that there is no privacy at all. Indeed, the smallest domestic quarrel in one house translates into a communal affair. Along with the illusion of privacy, appearances and words are deceiving. Jean looks and talks like a “school marm, always sweet as juniberry juice,” but she is aggressive. The Kreitzers are more liberal in ideology than practice. Troy wants to be the chief of police, a profession linked with assuring the safety of others, but he is the least trustworthy of the men. “I guarantee,” he tells Jean, “you’ll be able to sleep nights with your door open.” Shortly thereafter, he assaults her sexually.

If the movie lacks redeeming qualities as a work of art, it is useful as a social document that reflects dominant culture. Despite a (superficial) happy ending, the narrative cannot conceal the anxieties generated by suburban life. Nonetheless, true to form–after all, it’s a melodrama–the film offers quick and contrived resolutions. The brutal Troy pays with his life for the sexual assault; ironically, he dies in an accident crushed under his own car.

Unable to adjust, his wife Leola goes back to the South–the appeal of suburbanism is not universal. The other couples survive, readjusting themselves to another state of balance, until the next crisis occurs. The film ends symmetrically, just as it began. It’s another Sunday, but there is one difference: Iko and his wife are at church. To what extent they are fully integrated into the community, is up to the viewers to decide.