Monday, March 3, 2014

Movies I’ve stared at recently on TCM FXM #62


No Down Payment (1957) – David and Jean Martin (Jeffrey Hunter, Patricia Owens) are a young married couple driving to their new home in a California subdivision entitled Sunrise Hills (“A Better Place For Better Living”); like most newlyweds in that era, the suburbs promise the fulfillment of the American Dream—the Martins are able to purchase a nice home via the G.I. Bill (David was in the service, though his unit was never called up overseas) and spend much of their free time socializing with their like-minded neighbors, enjoying backyard barbecues and parties.

Those of us who grew up in small towns, however, know that there’s a number of skeleton-filled closets just waiting to be flung open, and the Martins’ new neighbors are no exception: Jerry Flagg (Tony Randall) is an alcoholic used car salesman in debt up to his eyeballs (his patient wife Isabelle is played by Sheree North) and Troy Boone (Cameron Mitchell) is a WW2 veteran who’s never been able to adjust to easing back into society (he manages a service station, but very much wants to become the subdivision’s police chief).  The only couple who seems well-adjusted are the Kreitzers, Betty (Barbara Rush) and Herman (Pat Hingle), but storm clouds begin to loom when Herm’s assistant manager (Aki Aleong) at the appliance store where they work starts to pressure him about Sunrise Hills’ covenant that prohibits renting to Asian-Americans.

Adapted from John McPartland’s novel by Ben Maddow (though Philip Yordan receives onscreen credit, since he was fronting for the blacklisted Ben), No Down Payment is an intriguing treatise on the American Dream’s soft white underbelly…and though it doesn’t completely succeed (the storylines are wrapped up a little too quickly and nicely for my taste) I don’t regret sitting down with this one (it was helmed by Martin Ritt, one of my favorite directors).  The acting takes center stage here, and I was most impressed with Hingle (a longtime fave), a decent man who’s put in a bind when he can’t get any support in confronting the community’s racism (his wife is reticent about the fight at first—and one of the best scenes in the movie has the agnostic Hingle challenging her “Christian” position—but she eventually comes around because deep down she knows that it’s the moral thing to do).  I also liked the casting of Randall, who normally was assigned to movies in order to make Rock Hudson butch, and while I’ve always known North was a first-rate character actress she really shines here (before that, 20th Century-Fox thought of her as a Marilyn Monroe clone).  Hunter is really the only weak link in this one (well, Owens isn’t all that impressive either; the sad part is that Joanne Woodward, who plays Mitchell’s spouse, has been saddled with a role she could have played in her sleep), and I’ve tried to leave out as many specifics about the film’s plot as I can because I’m hesitant to spoil it in case you haven’t seen it.  Reputedly the inspiration for the long-running nighttime TV soap Knots Landing.

Dante’s Inferno (1935) – This was Spencer Tracy’s last film for Fox (it was also the last film produced at Fox before they merged with 20th Century) and he plays Jim Carter, a ship’s stoker-turned-carnival barker, promoting an attraction based on The Divine Comedy (managed by Henry B. Walthall and daughter Claire Trevor).  Spence has bigger plans for the Inferno concession; he rebuilds the “ride” (squeezing out another concession at the park) and with that success, constructs an amusement empire that makes him, Trevor and their son Scotty Beckett quite well off.  Tracy’s grandiose dream of a floating casino ship eventually comes to pass…but with a terrible cost that brings to mind the Biblical verse “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

This anything-less-than-subtle allegory is renowned for its ten-minute sequence of a literal Hell (directed by one-time post-impressionist painter Henry Lachman) that earned high praise in certain critical quarters but that I personally thought slowed the film down some.  Tracy is in his Man’s Castle-macho phase here (and also appears in blackface, which might make a few of his fans wince) but Walthall is great as the movie’s moral center, Trevor as Spence’s supportive wife (I think this is the earliest of her films I’ve watched, if memory serves) and Beckett cute as all-get-out as their son.  You also won’t be able to miss the appeal of a young Rita Hayworth (billed as Rita Cansino) as one of the dancers during the shipboard sequence…which brings me to…

The Story on Page One (1959) – Rita’s the star of this courtroom drama written and directed by playwright Clifford Odets; as Josephine Morris, she struggles to overcome an apathetic existence married to a real wanker named Mike (Alfred Ryder) by having an affair with accountant Larry Ellis (Gig Young).  (Ellis has his own set of problems: he’s grieving over the death of his young son, and he’s saddled with the mother from Hell, played by Mildred Dunnock).  A drunken Mike catches Jo and Larry together in the Morris’ kitchen and in the ensuing struggle, he’s killed by Larry with Morris’ own gun.  Both Jo and Larry are on trial for murder, so Jo’s ma (Katherine Squire) convinces down-and-out attorney Vic Santini (Anthony Franciosa) to defend her daughter.

My BBFF Stacia clued me into Page One (she had wanted me to record it for her a while back but I didn’t have FXM at the time) and while I didn’t hate the movie I wasn’t particularly bowled over by it, either.  I don’t know if Odets set out to make these proceedings humdrum on purpose or whether it just turned out that way…but there aren’t many dramatic sparks on display (save for Franciosa’s interrogation of Dunnock), and I think the lack of tension might turn off some.  Young seemed to me tragically miscast in this one; you would think a fella on trial for his life would be a little more worried about his fate but Gig just seems annoyed, as if this whole thing was keeping him from playing a few holes.  I’m not sure if I would have also gone with Rita as the housewife (reportedly Marilyn Monroe was considered for the lead, but I don’t think that would have worked either); the plus is that Hayworth isn’t the glamour icon of yore and that works as far as her character as a beaten-down hausfrau is concerned…the minus is that it’s uncomfortable to watch her onscreen, knowing that stress from tumultuous former marriages plus alcohol has really wreaked havoc with an amazingly beautiful star.  Extra credit to those who can identify the movie playing on Tony’s TV set in the opening scenes.

4 comments:

ClassicBecky said...

Love Dante's Inferno -- an in-your-face moral allegory, lots of ACTING, and just a great movie to watch. When I saw No Down Payment as a teenager, I thought adult life in that movie looked so dramatic and appealing -- when I actually experienced adult life, I found that the dramatic is not so appealing and, as you say, not wrapped up in a neat package in a 2-hour period! I've never seen Page One.

I caught an unknown-to-me, didn't-expect-to-like-it movie on Netflix, "Tucker and Dale vs. Evil." It is hilarious! 2 hillbilly friends, friendly and harmless, are taken for serial killers by a group of teenagers camping. You've gotta check that out, Ivan. Great for a laugh...

grouchomarxist said...

"This is a suicide pact!"

You can add my "You gotta check that out" to ClassicBecky's. Tucker and Dale is a hoot.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

When I saw No Down Payment as a teenager, I thought adult life in that movie looked so dramatic and appealing -- when I actually experienced adult life, I found that the dramatic is not so appealing and, as you say, not wrapped up in a neat package in a 2-hour period!

I think my main beef with the film is that after the Cam Mitchell-Joanne Woodward storyline, they don't really tie up a lot of the remaining threads. But this one was definitely the best of the three I watched here.

Stacia said...

Absolutely agree about Gig Young. PAGE ONE was the first film I saw him in and I was very unimpressed; that the second was GAME OF DEATH didn't help matters. I still don't like Gig Young.

I did think the understated tension with Hayworth and Franciosa was good, and Mildred Dunnock was perfect. Odets is kind of a difficult guy to get into on the screen (I haven't seen anything of his on stage) but I like his skewed, stylized mannerisms.