The popular and critically-lauded Mad Men demonstrated that television is becoming the new American cinema for mature viewers now that movies in the theater are pitched more towards teenagers and young adults, particularly those in other countries who are not fluent in English (i.e., explosions and CGI are in, character development and dialogue are out). This is actually a return to the norms of the early years of television in which TV owners were more educated and urban than Americans as a whole, and thirsted for the high-quality productions that appeared (sometimes live, sometimes taped) on anthology shows like Playhouse 90 and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Many of the primarily New York-based actors on these programs went on to become national stars, and many of the writers did as well, including the magnificent Rod Serling. In 1955, Serling and Director Fielder Cook staged a live performance of a Man Men-style drama (which the creator of Mad Men saw and was inspired by) on Kraft Television Theater that generated such an enormous audience reaction that they re-broadcast it on television (again, live) and then turned it the following year into a theatrical release: Patterns.
The plot: Junior executive Fred Staples (Van Heflin) has arrived in New York City at the behest of tyrannical CEO Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane). Staples is mentored by Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), the last of the old guard who founded the company along with Ramsey’s now deceased father. Briggs believes in putting people above profit; Ramsey regards this as sentimental twaddle and repeatedly humiliates Briggs accordingly. Staples learns that the company never fires executives explicitly, only bullies them into resigning after their replacements have been hired…and he is the kindly Briggs’ replacement-to-be. Compelling office drama ensues.
Cook and his cast deserve roses for the electrifying acting in this film, which brings alive what could have been an overly cerebral or stagy production. This is probably the only significant movie role that stage and TV actor Sloane played outside of his collaborations with Orson Welles (Citizen Kane and The Lady from Shanghai), and he makes film lovers feel the loss with a powerhouse portrayal of a hard-nosed man with significant flaws and a few offsetting virtues as well. Begley, a treasure among character actors, draws pity but also respect from the audience in a finely tuned performance. Heflin, who was not in the television version, gives an anguished performance as Staples, and Beatrice Straight is equally strong as his perceptive wife. The rest of the cast is also terrific in parts large and small.
Cinematographer Boris Kaufman faced the challenge of how to avoid a television or play-like look in the theatrical version, and he hit it for six. He employs a number of low-angles that accentuate the height of the offices and buildings and the relative smallness of most of the drones who toil there. Because I don’t want to spoil the climactic moment, I will be vague about its details other than saying the decision by Cook and Kaufman to use a point of view shot was truly inspired.
The world portrayed here — all white male boardroom members with female secretaries in the office and wives at home in suburbia — may put some people off, but I take the success of Mad Men as a sign that most viewers can appreciate crackling drama even if it takes place amidst social arrangements that are today seen as retrograde. No matter what world it’s set in, Patterns is a first-rate movie that holds up beautifully a half century after its release.
p.s. Serling’s pungent script catapulted him deservedly to the status of hot new thing in screenwriting. He followed up Patterns immediately with another brilliant televised play, Requiem for a Heavyweight, which you can watch here. A few years later of course, he attained television immortality with The Twilight Zone.