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.

Drama Mystery/Noir

The Turning Point

LOS ANGELES'S ANGELS FLIGHT by Jim Dawson - "The Turning Point ...

Recognizing that post-war audiences were gripped by more realistic, torn from the headlines crime stories, Hollywood producers were giddy over the Kefauver Committee’s investigation of organized crime. Many Americans were transfixed by the hearings, both because they provided their first glimpse into the workings of the Mafia and because they were on this new fangled gizmo known as a television. A raft of films followed that were based on the hearings either directly or obliquely (the latter including one of my recommendations, Bullitt). Many of the Kefauver films were cheap and unimaginative, but 1952’s The Turning Point is quality cinema.

The strong cast features Edmond O’Brien as John Conroy, a special prosecutor appointed to take down a criminal syndicate run by the slimy, brutal Neil Eichelberger (Ed Begley), who poses as a legitimate businessman. Conroy’s hard-nosed childhood pal (William Holden), now a crime reporter, comes along for the ride, not because he believes anything will come of the investigation but because he admires his old friend and also, rather guiltily, has eyes for Conroy’s gorgeous, idealistic assistant (Alexis Smith). Meanwhile, John’s father, a beat cop played by reliable veteran character actor Tom Tully, is also in the mix, but what side he’s playing is a subject of mystery.

Warren Duff never became famous as a screenwriter, but he was very good in his niche of tough crime stories. He does a particularly admirable job here creating dramatic face off scenes between each pair of principals. Lionel Lindon’s skilled camerawork makes the film pleasing to the eye (love the long tracking shot with Holden and O’Brien early on) as does William Holden, who looks fabulous in a series of tailored suits that the legendary Edith Head picked for him (I guess ink-stained wretches could afford those kind of threads and fashion advice back then). The broad-shouldered screen icon has real chemistry with his equally toothsome co-star Alexis Smith, who puts spine and depth into her character rather than just being eye candy. She and Duff’s script are particularly good at ripping apart the cynical facade of Holden’s character, which is potent stuff for Holden fans given how often he played this type.

The Turning Point has a few weaknesses. After a gripping first 45 minutes there is a lull in the action at the actual commission hearings, which should have been a highlight of the film, especially with an actor of Begley’s stature at center stage. There are also a couple small logical holes and overly worn elements in the plot. As a result, I would not call The Turning Point an all-time classic crime melodrama. But it’s definitely exciting and entertaining, with a cast that is aces right down the line.

p.s. Plug ugly Neville Brand, who made a career out of playing nasty thugs, appears at the end as a hired killer. Both he and O’Brien were another of my recommendations, D.O.A.

Drama Mystery/Noir


The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict.

1947’s Boomerang!, based on a real-life murder case that was never solved, stands out among Hollywood’s many courtroom dramas due to its excellent acting, unusual plot structure and creative storytelling style.

The crime that provides the basis for the movie occurred in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1924, but because the town refused to allow Boomerang! to be filmed there, nearby Stamford was used instead. The basic facts of the original case are all present in the film. A priest is publicly executed by a gunshot to the head and the killer escapes before shocked witnesses can react. A manhunt and tremendous pressure on the police and local politicians ensue. Eventually the police arrest a drifter, a war veteran familiar with firearms and in possession of a .32 caliber handgun such as was used in the murder. He initially asserts his innocence but confesses to the crime after an extended pre-Miranda Era grilling by police detectives. The pressure is on for a quick conviction and sentencing, but the state’s attorney (in real life, future Attorney General of the United States Homer Cummings) begins to doubt the guilt of the accused.

The film is an early effort of Elia Kazan, and shows the flowering inventiveness of a young filmmaker on his way to a glittering career. Montage sequences are skillfully employed both to move the story along and also to provide local color. We don’t just see the usual newspaper headlines “Murder Suspect Arrested!” racing across the screen. Instead the montages also cut between little moments: Woman gossiping about the crime on the back stoop, men who vaguely match the description of the killer being arrested by police, ordinary people eyeing each other suspiciously on the street. Combined with shooting on location, these sequences do much to deepen the film’s realistic style.

Richard Murphy’s script, based on Fulton Oursler’s Reader’s Digest article about the real case, adds some elements that are uniquely suspenseful. Through an early scene with the priest followed by some meaningful closeups later, viewers are signaled about the true identity of the murderer. Thus, unlike in films where the audience is on the edge of their seats wondering if someone is guilty, the tension is focused instead on whether mob pressure will result in the conviction of an innocent man. Further, by inventing context about local machine politics, including giving the defendant an attorney who wants him to be convicted, the script shifts attention away from what will happen when the case is tried and centers its conflict on the morality of one character: When absolutely everyone is rooting for a conviction and the consequences of not securing it could be personally disastrous, what should a state’s attorney do when he thinks the police have the wrong man?

Dana Andrews was born to play characters like the state’s attorney, and this is one of his best roles. When he meets the accused (Arthur Kennedy, very good as usual) in jail, he expects a perfunctory post-confession meeting. But when he begins to learn the other side of his story, the doubt and sympathy subtly and irresistibly grow on Andrews’ face. He was so good at calibrating his reactions that you could imagine everyone in the audience thinking they were the one person who noticed that something was roiling beneath the surface polish. Kazan was of the method school and wanted more histrionics from the naturalistic Andrews, which goes to show that even A-list directors are wrong some of the time.

An actor more to Kazan’s liking, Lee J. Cobb, makes a big impression here as a gruff, tough yet ethical police detective. There are a few scenes when Kazan lets the camera linger on him for a few moments after the dialogue has ended, and each time Cobb gives some look or non-verbal gesture that nicely conveys his thoughts and feelings. Jane Wyatt, as Andrews’ wife, has the right touch in the domestic scenes: They are absolutely credible as a loving, long-married couple. Ed Begley is also compelling as a slimy local businessman with a selfish interest in a quick conviction, and Karl Malden makes a good cop, just as he would again with Andrews in Where the Sidewalk Ends (Recommendation here).

The last act of the film, which takes place in a packed courtroom, shows how a superstar can dominate the screen (if you want a similar, more recent example, check out Paul Newman’s courtroom closing argument in The Verdict). Standing center stage and looking devastating in a natty dark suit (WHY WHY WHY did American men ever stop dressing this way?), Andrews has 95% of the dialogue, with the other actors mainly being window dressing. It could have been stagy, but Andrews sells it with invincible credibility, giving the audience an exciting and satisfying wrap-up of every loose end in the story.