I realize how difficult it is, in the din of endless online content and countless listicles and algorithms, to make a movie recommendation that means anything. So let me assure you that this week’s pick is selected by a reputable source, and I am merely the carrier pigeon for the recommendation: Martin Scorsese thinks you should watch Patterns. He thought I should too, so I did. And here we are.
Put as simply as possible, I interviewed Mr. Scorsese for my upcoming book on New York movies, and asked for a few of his essentials, just off the top of his head. He demurred; he did not want to be that casual about it, and he would get back to me. And sure enough, a few days later, his publicist sent over a Word document of his formative and essential New York City cinema, and while I had seen most and at least heard of the ones I hadn’t seen, Patterns was completely unfamiliar to me. But it’s on Amazon Prime now (in an admittedly shoddy, public domain-quality print), so here we are.
The biggest draw, at least for contemporary audiences, is Rod Serling, the prolific creator of The Twilight Zone, who wrote the film – adapting his own teleplay, an episode of the Kraft Television Theatre anthology series. As was the standard practice, though the story is set in New York City, the bulk of the picture was shot on California sound stages; the much more expensive East coast photography was limited to exteriors.
But what exteriors they are. The cinematographer is Boris Kaufman, the peerless Gotham craftsman who also shot On the Waterfront, The World of Henry Orient, and The Pawnbroker (among many others), and he fills those early frames with imposing, low-angle images of giant skyscrapers – the kind that crush the spirit. Fred Staples (Van Heflin) is introduced in the act of gawking at those skyscrapers, as his wife muses, “A little different from Mansfield, isn’t it?” He replies, “Gimme a chance, maybe I’ll get it down to my size.”
It’s Fred’s first day at Ramsey & Co., a Manhattan-based industrial empire, and the new guy’s orientation is, as ever, a whip-smart exposition tool. The rising star was brought in from another company, a recent acquisition, and is clearly being groomed for great things; “I have a feeling he’s going to carve out a long career around here,” notes William Briggs (Ed Begley), the honey-voiced positive thinker and firm long-timer (“the last of the original bunch around here”) in the office next door.
Briggs is a VP, the “Assistant General Manager,” just back from a sick leave. He’s getting up there in years, and sports a bad ticker and a worse ulcer. He can blame both on Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane, miles from his work as the jocular Mr. Bernstein in Citizen Kane); in Fred’s first meeting, the friction between the two men flares up quickly and sharply. There is a history here, and part of the subtle genius of Serling’s script is how cleverly he shades in the nuances of this relationship: an offhand remark here, and under-the-breath snipe there, until Fred wanders into the older man’s office late one night to find him drunk and exhausted, waxing rhapsodic about Ramsey’s father (whose name is on the company), then dismissing the son as “this spindly little financial wizard.”
Briggs’s assessment of Fred is kinder: “I like the guy.” And he’s easy to like, affable, a former jock, a quick study; he advances quickly in the company, and then discovers he’s intended to. Mr. Ramsey brought Fred in to replace Briggs, whom he compares to a grandfather clock or a Stanley steamer, an antique whose time has passed. And while Fred wants to stick up for his friend and colleague, he discovers soon enough that his morality and righteousness can, in fact, be bought – if the price is right.
Director Fielder Cook – who, appropriate to Patterns’ origins, mostly worked in television – deftly understands how to frame Briggs (and Begley’s heartbreaking performance). We see the old man, from the beginning, as a tragic figure, a Shelley Levine type; the picture tracks Fred’s journey to seeing him the same way. But the tragedy is not that Briggs is incompetent, or ineffective. It’s that he’s old-fashioned. “You think of people in terms of the human factor,” Briggs confides to Fred, as a compliment. “It’s something I’ve never been able to get Ramsey to understand.”
This is what’s most fascinating about Patterns – the degree to which Serling’s sharp, insightful script homes in on the big ideas of efficiency and profitability that would power American business (and American life) in the decades to come. It may be more explicit, but Serling and Cook are painting the same kind of poison portrait of corporate (specifically, executive) culture as Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond in The Apartment four years later; from the power dynamics at the elevators to the arbitrary bullying in staff meetings (“Ramsey’s stalking that poor man like an animal”), Patterns presents us with an utterly and undeniably toxic workplace, decades before that phrase existed. “I don’t submit to any of these calculated colorations of a man’s worth,” Briggs sputters, near the end of the film, and the end of his time at Ramsey & Co. It was true then, and even more so now.
“Patterns” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.