Patterns (1956, Fielder Cook)
For all his fame, Rod Serling hasn’t lived on to the twenty-first century with the prestige of a “name” like Paddy Chayefsky’s. We know him primarily today for The Twilight Zone, the anthology series he created and hosted that was in fact a major creative detour in his career; for those of us who believe TZ is just about the peak of dramatic television as an art form, that isn’t a problem, but it does something of a disservice to the caliber of the teleplays Serling wrote in the mid-’50s that initially made him a household name. The most enduring of these has proven to be Requiem for a Heavyweight, but the script that ensured he’d never endure a long period without working was Patterns, a taut corporate drama produced in 1955 for Kraft Television Theatre, a breakthrough in serious-minded live dramatic television, and an overnight popular sensation. It was so widely acclaimed and celebrated an entire performance was repeated (unheard of at the time), and two years later it became a theatrical motion picture with the same director (Fielder Cook) and most of the same cast.
I have not seen the surviving telecine of the original Patterns, though I intend to at some point. I did, however, try for years upon years thanks to my admiration for Serling to track down a copy of the film. Upon finally seeing it this year, I found it not at all what I anticipated — and I found a magnificent drama that far outpaced my expectations.
Part of what’s impressive about Patterns is, outside of a few contemporary references and the blatantly patriarchal structure of the office depicted, its story is universal enough to scarcely have dated. To oversimplify slightly, it’s about a junior executive, Fred Staples, of an industrial empire located in NYC; he’s been brought in from far afield. Staples (Van Heflin in a slightly one-note but serviceable performance) isn’t aware that the kind-hearted and deeply conscientious vice president to whom he’s quickly becoming close, Bill Briggs (Ed Begley, stunning), is actually the man he’s being groomed to replace. This explains the cool attitude he receives from his secretary (Elizabeth Wilson), long faithful to Briggs, and the toxic atmosphere around the office, particularly emanating from ruthless boss Walter Ramsey (the phenomenal Everett Sloane); Staples witnesses how the stress of Briggs’ rocky relationship with Ramsey (Briggs refuses to resign, and Ramsey won’t fire him) leads the former to drink, to estrangement from his family, and finally to tragedy. With a bitterness that could make a lesser man’s blood run cold, the boy wonder confronts his new boss — and ends up playing into his hands more than he likely will ever suspect.
There’s more to it than this, lots more; Patterns isn’t a plot-driven story, it’s about people: their inner lives, their faces, their emotions, their ambitions, their crushed hopes. It’s just the kind of thing television was invented for and seldom harnessed in those days — the opportunity to tell a subtle, human tale in which little motions, little changes, little conflicts turn out to mean very big things. Luckily, Patterns ends up working just as brilliantly in its big-screen expansion, thanks to its unsentimental storytelling, unforced emotional notes, vividly realistic relationships (the marriage of Mr. & Mrs. Staples, which is not at all central to most of the story, is among the most believable and refreshingly equal I can recall seeing in a film of this era), and especially the powerhouse performances. Never larger than life, Sloane and Begley nevertheless give showstopping turns as the two men in their own sort of head to head combat, a kind seldom seen in American cinema up to now. When their arguments elevate in the almost unbearably tense board meeting sequences, it’s a thing of balletic beauty to watch them build on and feed off one another. Heflin can only watch helplessly. And though Patterns is a story about men, the female roles are plum despite their traditionalism and given excellent reads by Beatrice Straight, Joanna Roos, and especially Wilson as Briggs’ emotionally wounded, long-suffering secretary.
There would be times in later years when the great Serling would be prone to turning his characters into mouthpieces; critic Marc Zicree once said that in Serling’s later Twilight Zone scripts, the only two types of characters he wrote were those who made speeches and those who made speeches while shouting. Not only is that feature absent from Patterns, the dialogue is so unexpectedly natural and knowing in its on-target awareness of the in-and-out bullheadedness of white-collar interactions, it sometimes seems too authentic to be written. Such is the nature of Serling’s peerless dialogue and characterizations, and of the gripping and concise story he tells that requires no grandiose action or movement to be exciting. Indeed, director Cook approaches the story as a work of intoxicating claustrophobia, nearly every scene occurring in shadowy board rooms or insular office parties, the most chilling of all after hours. Cook makes ingenious use of the dark — subjectively illustrating the hugeness of Briggs’ impending doom and the desperation of his final days, the conspiratorial back-stabbing of the environment Ramsey creates — and of silence, the silence that overtakes all remaining support for the aging vice president whose time is perceived to have passed, the terrified silence of the other board members as Ramsey berates his underlings, the silence of Staples himself as he grudgingly admits that for all of this that eats at his conscience, he does want to move ahead, that he — like most everyone — is not immune to the seductions of power. In such bleak but level-headed realism, Serling and Cook get at a stark and uncomfortable truth that still feels relevant and unresolved; the result is a small film that packs a wallop.