PATTERNS , an excellent 1956 drama, not only retains luster as a searing reflection on the changed face of postwar American working life, it marked emergence of a major talent as brash newcomer Rod Serling’s 72nd script broke him into name recognition and kicked his career into high. Serling wrote it for live TVs great anthology series Kraft Television Theater. The Jan.12, 1955 broadcast was such a sensation that it had an unprecedented repeat a month later, the first instance of a rerun for a TV program, setting a—you guessed it—pattern. After picking up an Emmy, the fearless Serling adapted it to film, and Fielder Cook directed this 83-minute feature version.
Manhattan. Corporate industry. Skyscraper offices, ruthless management, nonstop tension for the pushed-to-brink employees, extending to the ‘relaxation’ at martini-fueled dinner parties. Boosted from the sticks to the subways, innovative and ethical Van Heflin (perfect choice) is groomed to replace old-line, worn-out Ed Begley, a great fella but not bloodthirsty enough for tyrant boss-man Everett Sloane, who runs the company like a German panzer division trying to beat the snow to Moscow. Temperaments and wills clash. For a generation of ex-servicemen, their wives and families, this pattern fit like a straitjacket.*
The brutal logic of regimentation had been pressed onto sixteen million men (let alone all the Rosie Riveters) during the 1941-45 whirlwind of WW2. What worked in extremis fighting Hitler and Tojo had a backhand grind-down effect when implemented across the norm during the 50s, with those hordes of G.I. Bill’d lieutenants and captains donning suits instead of flak jackets, replacing helmets with fedoras. On the big screen the adjustment played in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, Woman’s World, Executive Suite, The Best Of Everything and Desk Set. Apart from the occasional anthology drama like this, on television the subservience to conformity was safely buried in the relief valve of sitcoms, where the harried company man was occupied trying to calmly extricate his kids from malt shops, giant cups of soup and listening too closely to the gibbering of one Maynard G.Krebs.**
Serling’s no-nonsense look eschews color and secondary romantic subplots to pry at the artery-clogged heart of the power dynamic and its numbness payout of uncertainty and anguish. Heflin’s solid decency, Begley’s touching humiliation and Sloane’s damn-your-kneejerk scalding make for a series of confrontations that pit styles against the tide.
“On our level you don’t get fired, you know that. After thirty years of productive work, they can’t say to a man like me, “Alright, now get out!” They just can’t do that. So what do they do? They create a situation. A situation you can’t work in and finally that you can’t live in with this tension, abuse.”
Carbon-dated mainly in the props–things like teletypes, phones–but the struggle to retain humanity in the maw of the market hasn’t gone away. Supporting cast: Beatrice Straight, Elizabeth Wilson, Joanna Roos, Andrew Duggan (debut) and Edward Binns.
*I had a visceral take on this when I first caught it, at age twelve or so. My Dad was in his mid 50s, slaving for a corporate behemoth, and palpable fear ran in the household about getting laid off. I vividly recall the worry in my mother’s eyes, and the stoic come-what-may foothold on dignity my father clung to. A few years later, the company (gobbled by W.R. Grace–many happy returns while writhing in hell) sold out their employees loyalty to foreign flags. The bastards cut him out, months before his pension was locked, 54 and “thanks, Ed, good luck.” One of my early lessons in the actual reliability of officialdom and the feeble fragility of faith. The demolition of the American merchant marine fleet and shipping industry was one of the first blocks pulled out of the phony edifice propping up all the barbecues, Barbies and baseball mitts. Wait, there are.. safeguards.. now. You really think Social Security is going to be there, down the line? Huh, well, in that case, let me sell you this swampland, at a discount, to a loyal customer, from a proud sponsor of……….
** Boomers need no steenk-een asterisks, but for those who think quizzical I’m referring to The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet (1952-1966), Leave It To Beaver (1957-1963) and The Many Loves Of Dobie Gillis (1959-1963). Lest we forget: Father Knows Best (1954-1963), The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966), The Danny Thomas Show (1953-1964) and My Three Sons (1960-1972). Sorry to disappoint my more radical friends, but I’m not sneering at these programs: I think ‘Beaver‘ and ‘Dobie‘ in particular are priceless and it’s a lazy shot to blame the downfall of society on Lumpy Rutherford, Shelley Fabares or ‘Chip’. Granted. the most realistic may have been The Addams Family (1964-1966)……