Rod Serling’s ‘Patterns’
Is this Rod Serling’s best teleplay ever? Van Heflin, Everett Sloane and Ed Begley are at the center of a business power squeeze. Is it all about staying competitive, or is it corporate murder? With terrific early performances from Elizabeth Wilson and Beatrice Straight.
The Film Detective
1956 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 83 min. / Street Date September 27, 2016 / 14.99
Starring Van Heflin, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Beatrice Straight, Elizabeth Wilson, Joanna Roos, Valerie Cossart, Eleni Kiamos, Ronnie Welsh, Shirley Standlee, Andrew Duggan, Jack Livesy, John Seymour, James Kelly, John Shelly, Victor Harrison, Sally Gracie, Sally Chamberlin, Edward Binns, Lauren Bacall, Ethel Britton, Michael Dreyfuss, Elaine Kaye, Adrienne Moore.
Cinematography Boris Kaufman
Film Editors Dave Kummis, Carl Lerner
Art Direction Richard Sylbert
Assistant Director Charles Maguire
Written by Rod Serling
Produced by Michael Myerberg
Directed by Fielder Cook
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Let me roll off the titles of some ‘fifties ‘organization man’ pictures: The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, Executive Suite, and related ‘getting along with the new business rules’ soaps like The Best of Everything and Woman’s World. Discounting the somewhat silly Woman’s World all of these pictures are about people making adjustments to a new kind of corporate life, wherein large companies in big cities concentrate a lot of economic power and decision-making in the hands of a few chosen people. Executives in New York must struggle and fight their way up the corporate ladder, only to find that that what awaits them are jobs so fraught with tension that one has no energy for anything else — families, children. The typical ’50s go-getter is an ex- GI or officer eager to take on the challenges, who has a wife back home who wants to support him, either by helping him make good decisions or to keep him from cracking up. Jennifer Jones in Gray Flannel Suit is a child-woman who enjoys all the perks but cannot handle bad news. June Allyson of Executive Suite spends two hours telling her husband to quit — until it’s revealed that she’s as eager for the key to the executive washroom as he is. Almost all of the films soften their radical, ‘this isn’t human’ attitudes in time for the fade-out. Like a werewolf reverting to normal at the point of death, Joan Crawford’s monstrous exec in Best of Everything becomes soft and feminine again when she quits her job, seemingly proving that women must give up too much to become part of the corporate scheming. The executive secretaries behave as if boardrooms are jousting arenas, where the unworthy are judged and found wanting. Remember the astronaut’s wife in The Right Stuff who says that other wives worry about their executive husbands in the dirty corporate trenches, that they might not come out of a boardroom alive?
Perhaps the best and most insightful of the ‘organization man’ epics of the decade is Patterns, originally a Kraft Theater live TV presentation performed twice early in 1955. The writer is the ‘hot’ Rod Serling, and it’s still considered one of his very best teleplays; a deal was made with United Artists for the two men to make a feature film version, as had been done with great success with Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty. The TV Patterns could boast a killer cast. Along with some minor parts, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Elizabeth Wilson, Joanna Roos repeated their roles for the feature version. For the film, Richard Kiley, Elizabeth Montgomery and June Dayton were replaced by Van Heflin, Sally Gracie and Beatrice Straight. For the record, and to give an idea of the caliber of talent these live TV people had to pick from, Fielder Cook also collaborated with Serling on the same year’s live TV drama Mr. Finchley Versus the Bomb, a Twilight Zone- like story about a codger refusing to leave an atom blast area. It starred John Galludet, Henry Hull, Cloris Leachman, Paul Mazursky and William Shatner!
Serling’s thesis confronts the alleged inhumanity of the ‘new business world’ head-on. The Ramsey Company is run by the draconian Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane), who demands aggressive competitiveness from all of his key executives. To Ramsey the boardroom is an arena that will not tolerate slackness; one must pull one’s weight and more to merit one’s post. It’s a Darwinian concept — success comes by encouraging the better men to push the less worthy aside. The office and its secretaries are nervous about the arrival of Fred Staples (Van Heflin), a hot talent from the hinterlands eager for the chance to succeed at Ramsey headquarters. Everybody assumes that Staples is there to replace old Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), the last of the original team that started the company with Ramsey’s father. Especially nervous is Briggs’ devoted secretary Marge Fleming (Elizabeth Wilson), and being told that she’s only helping break in the new man doesn’t calm her – Ramsey treats Briggs terribly in the boardroom, in front of the other executives. Struck by the humiliations, Bill exits the meeting like a dead man walking, and starts drinking again. At a party at the Staples’ new house, Fred is given the big meet and greet. His wise executive wife Nancy (Beatrice Straight) knows better than to sweet-talk the rather harsh and rude Mr. Ramsey, who chooses not to socialize but to lock himself in Fred’s study to read Fred and Bill’s new report/proposal for company reforms. Ramsey insists that the excellent report is all Fred’s work, and admits that Bill Briggs is on the way out. Fred Staples respects Briggs and defends him; but Ramsay has no use for what he calls deadwood. Seeing Bill deteriorate on the job, Fred begs him to retire. In a subsequent boardroom clash Ramsey berates Briggs without mercy, daring him to quit. Something has to give.
Patterns is often listed with a sub-title on its poster (“… of Power!”) that isn’t on the film itself. The power is palpable in the way Everett Sloane runs his company, which functions like a corporate fiefdom. From the elevator operators to the interplay of the executive secretaries, all business activities are dictated with a rigid ceremony, like the command rituals on a Naval vessel. There are ‘official’ reasons for everything, and real reasons underneath; one can’t let rumors get started that might hurt the company’s image and give the competition ideas. Ramsey reserves the right to hand out ulcers to execs that he feels aren’t pulling their weight. Staples has been brought in not to collect a reward, but because Ramsey expects him to tear into every aspect of the business, making things more efficient, improving the product and intimidating the competition.
In a way Patterns is more ambitious than the other main contenders Gray Flannel Suit and Executive Suite, entertainments that in general uphold the status quo. Serling’s teleplay challenges us to decide whether he’s criticizing the way Walter Ramsey does business, or celebrating it. In Gray Flannel Suit, mid-level advertising executive Gregory Peck is just a softie unwilling to be elevated into the higher company levels, because he’ll lose contact with his family, which is more important to him than a new car and bigger salary. Good luck Greg, for in real companies one isn’t always allowed to find a comfortable level and stay there. You either keep moving up or you’re replaced, more likely than not by your own assistant, who can be pressured to cover your workload at a fraction of your salary.
The dynamics of the rat race isn’t a simple matter of cream rising, as shown in the furniture company in Executive Suite, where go-getter William Holden finds himself competing against a pack of knaves and unsuitables that avoid decisions like the plague. His only competition is Fredric March’s unpopular Little Napoleon type, who is easily toppled from his perch. Holden’s tough guy exec proves his mettle in dramatic fashion, by tearing apart one of his company’s chairs, to prove that March’s notion of making the goods cheap and shoddy will backfire and cause the company to lose market share. We’re surprised that Holden keeps his shirt on while doing this, but maybe he’d project too much testosterone into the room if it were off. He’s basically Alexander the Great, hacking the Gordian Knot in twain. Move over, you wimp test pilots, and let an executive pass.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I use it to show the relative superiority of Rod Serling’s Patterns. The company is in good shape and Ramsey only wants to maintain the cutting edge that will keep it on top. He knows egos are involved. The other executives aren’t charlatans or weak sisters, but they don’t come to the aid of Bill Briggs because they know it will do no good. ‘Tis the Law of the Jungle and Briggs is in the way. These men might not be test pilots, they might not die every day, but those found wanting must leave to become miserable middle managers somewhere, live in apartments and deal with resentful wives that consider them losers. That’s 1956; today there are few middle managers, no army of secretaries, no elevator starters. Today’s executives will find themselves unemployable unless they’ve cultivated an entire network of people who owe them favors. Maybe one of them will actually help… if the outcome will prove advantageous for them. Like politicians, they can’t do their job because they’re always auditioning for the next job.
Patterns is somewhat compromised as well. (Spoiler) It’s not as bad as Executive Suite, where June Allyson whines at William Holden all through the picture, even as we suspect that she’s just whipping him into the kind of frenzy that will win him the top slot in that furniture company. There’s a country club in your future, June! In Patterns Beatrice Straight’s Nancy Staples stays supportive and cool all the way through, encouraging Fred to follow his best judgment. But when her man balks at the gate, claiming that he wants to quit, Mrs. Staples becomes a tiger, asking why Fred didn’t object to her showing Ramsey his report, and why he didn’t object sooner or louder. ‘Stop fooling yourself that you’re going to shortchange us on account of abstract ethics.’ Nancy says, without saying it out loud. She and Fred want the big reward, ‘to get in the capital gains bracket.’
(Spoiler) It’s the big-time game, and Nancy knows how to play it. She drives Fred to work and all but hands him his sword and shield as he enters company headquarters. Fred goes upstairs to tell Mr. Ramsay off, quit and maybe punch out the little creep. But the confrontation turns into a dare – Ramsey concedes nothing, and is willing to take his philosophy to its logical conclusion. The company always comes first. Individual people don’t matter. He doubles Fred Staples’ salary and stock options on the spot, to get him to stay. If the boss can take a killer shark in the boardroom, Staples will be happy to oblige, but promises loyalty only to what’s good for the company. If Ramsey gets in the way, he better watch out.
It’s like Luke Skywalker confronting Darth Vader, and instead of lopping off each other’s heads they realize that they’re a lot alike, and should team up to fulfill their destinies. Things can be awfully plush in this profit center, you know. Staples gets to take on top responsibilities and maintain his pride and sense of moral superiority. Bill Briggs? Who’s Bill Briggs? It’s not difficult to read the ‘moral confrontation’ as just another psychic pressure valve, to allow Fred and Ramsey to go forward, with the Ethical Slate wiped clean. They just needed closure.
Patterns is a concentrated drama. Fielder Cook’s direction opens the film up a bit but retains the high-powered confrontations — shouting matches, actually — to come through at full force. It is still a bit theatrical, but the delivery of every scene is spot-on.
This is one of Van Heflin’s very best roles, after far too many pictures that were unworthy of his talent. Everett Sloane is as good here as he is in anything for Orson Welles. But all the major roles are memorable. Ed Begley is associated with overbearing, corrupt fat cats; here he’s a good man trying to keep his dignity, knowing that every time he squirms or objects to Ramsey’s slings and arrows, he comes off as the old coot who ought to go jump in the river.
All the women’s roles are well covered, with Joanna Roos’ Miss Lanier directing activities on the office floor with impressive precision. But the film is a particularly ripe opportunity to enjoy two remarkable actresses. Elizabeth Wilson contributes great work to too many movies to mention. The same goes for Beatrice Straight, who had an equally stellar career on the legit stage and is terrific in a lot more than just Poltergeist. Patterns was her first feature appearance, and she in no way looks her age of 42 years. Straight’s best film scene is her showstopper in Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. It’s almost like a bookend to her dutiful corporate wife in Patterns. Instead of cheerleading a young go-getter, Beatrice’s character has been stuck with the guy (William Holden) for 25 years, locked out of his emotional life. Now she’s expected to play dead while Holden philanders with the cheap squab Faye Dunaway. Straight’s soliloquy reaming out Holden and demanding respect practically got a standing ovation in my first screening of the film. She puts the same acting voltage into Patterns.
Of course we all know that Fred and Nancy Staples eventually took over The Ramsey Company, changed its name and specialized in office supplies…
A young Andrew Duggan is one of the executives. The elevator starter in the lobby of the Ramsey Building is none other than Edward Binns, who was just getting started. He just makes the credited cast list. A woman among the crowd in the lobby does indeed look a lot like Lauren Bacall, although I don’t know why Mrs. Bogart would do such a thing. The woman shows up in a wider shot later on, performing the same motions. The improved presentation is what allows us to see this.
It seems that nobody remembers this movie, includes it in compilation montages or remembers its powerful dramatics. Why other shows were given a shot at the title, and the great contender Patterns got a ticket to Palookaville, I can only guess. Its star power can’t compete with the other ‘fifties organization man pictures, it’s in B&W, and it’s held by United Artists/MGM, which routinely lets pictures that didn’t earn AA nominations get shunted aside. The original posters look crummy and I doubt if much effort was made to sell it. Night of the Hunter and Kiss Me Deadly were only treated with respect when hipster demand raised the pressure, thirty years after they were made. And who ever heard of Fielder Cook, who would become one of the most prolific directors of TV movies? Other deserving UA/MGM pictures that haven’t been remastered in twenty years are Alexander Singer’s A Cold Wind in August with Lola Albright, Mark Robson’s Return to Paradise with Gary Cooper, Frank and Eleanor Perry’s Ladybug Ladybug, the first film of William Daniels and the second film of Nancy Marchand, and Jack Garfein’s weird original Something Wild, with its score by Aaron Copland. Come on, Criterion or Kino or Olive, show some guts!
The Film Detective’s Blu-ray of Patterns adds even more text (“…of power and greed!”) to the film’s unofficial titles — I suppose the title ‘Patterns’ helped the film die at the box office, for not being specific enough. The poster makes it look as though Van Heflin is toppling skyscrapers. Did Patterns ever play across the street from Godzilla?
The Film Detective is a company that I know from TCM, where its versions of various public domain movies play from time to time. I don’t know what the legal status of Patterns is, but this release is not from the original film elements, which are held by MGM. It’s a touchy subject when titles like Corman’s The Terror and Harrington’s Night Tide come out in PD editions. The companies that released those discs have done a fine job with whatever print materials they can find. The results are satisfying, even if we know that transfers from the pre-print materials in MGM’s vault would look better (as can be seen with the version of The Terror shown on the MGMHD cable channel).
This disc of Patterns scared me, because any PD release of a particular title makes a studio release of the same title less likely. The Film Detective’s copy is so good that I’d almost think they found some low-con element somewhere, but I think it’s a print, judging by the few scratches and digs and other minor flaws. It’s in full widescreen (1:66). The scan shows off a good range of contrast in all but a few shots, and the rock-steady image flatters Boris Kaufman’s excellent cinematography. This bests by a wide margin the soft, flat version that shows occasionally on TCM. Even the soundtrack sounds almost too good to have been derived from an optical track on a print. The show has good removable subs, although the transcriber flubs some lines, like saying ‘tool and dine’ instead of ‘tool and die.’
There are a couple of caveats. The first few seconds of the film are simply missing. Patterns begins with a panning shot across a New York skyline before a dissolve to a Wall Street- adjacent concrete canyon in lower Manhattan. That first shot, a daytime bookend to the nighttime image at the end, is missing and I don’t know why. Is it really missing, or does my player for some reason pick up the disc’s first authored chapter a few seconds late? That has happened now and then, once on a Criterion disc.
Then, about three minutes before the film is over, and right in the middle of the final Van Heflin – Everett Sloane confrontation, the picture quality dips, becoming lighter and more granular. It loses a little stability as well. The soundtrack becomes much harsher. Did the ‘good element’ finish, forcing The Film Detective to end the show with a 16mm copy given the works with digital corrections? More guesswork.
I found the film so powerful that these drawbacks come off as negligible. The show is better than I’ve ever seen, and it retains almost all of its impact. I recommend the disc.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Patterns (of Power) Blu-ray
Video: Good + Plus
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson