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A Pattern Begins to Emerge:
Thoughts on Rod Serling’s Patterns

3,699 words

Patterns (1956)
Director: Fielder Cook
Writer: Rod Serling (original story and screenplay)
Stars: Van Heflin, Everett Sloane, Ed Begley, Beatrice Straight

Serling, Rod: Patterns: Four Television Plays with the Author’s Personal Commentaries (Early Works Book 1); with an Introduction by Mark Dawidziak
Rod Serling Books, 2015

Stuck here in the glove factory squat by a rainy holiday weekend (who am I kidding? I never go out – too expensive, too many damn kids whining about Trump, and I’m afraid of the freight elevator that hasn’t been inspected since the Carter administration), I was idly channel surfing when I caught a showing of the movie version of Rod Serling’s debut TV hit, Patterns.

This was not a glossy Turner Movie Classics showing, nor a tweedy City College Cinematheque showing with a panel discussion to follow. This was a local government channel with a program devoted to “the city in film,” and so the print looked and sounded as old and muddy as what you’d find on the low-rent religious station that fills time with videotaped copies of public domain movies.

Moreover, I had come across it with only the last twenty minutes to go. Since I had heard of the film for years – likely ever since it was mentioned in connection with a Night Gallery episode back in the ’70s – I tuned in anyway, and was hooked immediately.

A well-dressed man strides purposefully down an office hallway towards us. He comes closer and closer, a look of grim determination on his face. At the last possible second before colliding with us, and the camera, he pauses, turns to the right, and enters a business office. There is an older, balding man behind the desk. Our man slams the double doors behind him and approaches the desk, where the other man sits, unconcerned.

It is, of course, the opening of . . . The Prisoner.[1]

Well, it’s not, of course, but I can’t help but think that being such a well-regarded film it must have had some influence, however subliminal, on McGoohan.[2]

Both are in some sense tales of postwar corporate ennui, though McGoohan’s, of course, is very ‘60s pop-art surrealist in its approach, as opposed to Patterns’ kitchen-sink realism.

But what’s it all about? Here’s the “storyline” from IMBD:

The story of the fierce and corrosive competition that exists in the executive branch of Ramsey & Co., a New York industrial colossus headed by Walter Ramsey, its cold, designing and ruthless chief. It is the saga, too, of Bill Briggs, his longtime second in command, who is swayed by human as well as technological values. And, it is the case of Fred Staples, a comparatively youthful industrial engineer brought in by Ramsey to succeed Briggs. The younger man’s views and sensitivities are essentially the same as Briggs’. People are not merely units, they feel. But it is Ramsey’s calculated pattern not to fire his aging aide but to create such untenable positions that he will be forced to resign.

An Amazon reviewer gives us some back and front story:

Rod Serling’s tale of ruthless men and ambitious women clawing for control of a billion-dollar empire first aired in Jan 1955 on Kraft Television Theater. The hard-hitting teleplay was such a success, earning Serling instant acclaim and the first of his six Emmy awards, that producers Jed Harris and Michael Myerberg helmed a big screen feature with the same director (Fielder Cook) and most of the same cast for United Artists. The result was an acid-etched chronicle of the cutthroat corporate world starring Van Heflin, Everett Sloane, and Ed Begley, with cinematography by Oscar winner Boris Kaufman (On The Waterfront, 12 Angry Men). This is boardroom bloodletting, the American way![3]

Serling went on, of course, to create The Twilight Zone, which revolved around very different genres – fantasy, science fiction, nostalgia, “social commentary” of the good-thinking liberal sort, and some usually very dire “comedy.” But during its run, Serling or his writing team returned to the themes of Patterns at least twice: in “A Nice Place to Visit” and above all “A Stop at Willoughby,” arguably the single biggest inspiration for Mad Men.[4] He even dragooned his last series, Night Gallery, into it, with William Windom in “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.”

But getting back to that final scene: after entering Ramsey’s office, things get really weird. Serling is famous for pumping and injecting his good-thinking liberalism wherever he can; a liberalism so smug and earnest and naïve that even liberals today cringe at how callow it is.[5] And I fully expected a deliciously nostalgic bath in it now.

What I got was a cold shower of Ayn Rand via Dr. Phil. Rather than being beaten into a shamed, self-loathing creature, like other Serling businessmen, Ramsey impassively stands his ground, insisting that his methods work, damn it, and thus bring greater prosperity to all.[6] Then he shifts his ground, and points out that he only rides Staples and others because he thinks they can take it, and can, through being challenged, achieve greater heights of personal and professional fulfillment.

It’s Staples who breaks under this flood of corporate Pollyannaism, and, if not exactly shouting his love of Big Brother, does in a sense accept the offer of becoming the new Number Two:

Walter Ramsey: Name your terms. All terms are negotiable.

Fred Staples: I don’t think so. Not mine.

Walter Ramsey: All right. I’d just as soon not waste any time doing trading. As of now, your salary is doubled. Your stock option is doubled right down the line. Your expense account is whatever you make it. Add to that a new title, Vice President.

Fred Staples: I want a lot more than that. You’re not going to take me on as just another Vice President you can push around. You take me as someone who hates you down to the bare nerve. Nothing in the world will ever change that. I’ll argue with you, contradict you, and fight you every way I know how. I’ll do everything in my power to push you out and take your place myself.

Walter Ramsey: Go ahead and try. Mr. Staples, you have yourself a deal.

Fred Staples: Have it drawn up.

Walter Ramsey: No reservations now?

Fred Staples: Yes, one. Bill had one pitiful little dream that someday he’d walk in here and break your jaw. I reserve the right to have that wish myself.

Walter Ramsey: I’ll have it drawn into the contract . . . with a rider giving me the same privilege.

Oh, why don’t you just kiss him instead of talking him to death!

And with their manly manhood established, they go on to meet the new challenges of the tough but fair world of dog-eat-dog capitalism.

I mean, what the Hell?

Readers of Counter-Currents will be pleased to know that you are apparently reading the work of the only person ever to notice that the ending of the Serling classic seems to have been written by Ayn Rand.

We, me, and some guy named M. G. Piety, who published this – just a couple of years ago – over at Counterpunch:

Staples wouldn’t accept such an arrangement, and, in fact, he didn’t accept it, not in Serling’s original script. Viewers learn from the introduction to Patterns provided on the DVD[7] that Serling’s original screenplay had Staples telling Ramsey off and returning to Cincinnati a hero. That’s how director Fielder Cook describes the original ending anyway. Cook explains that he had to do some revision of the script and that Serling also had to labor mightily to make it acceptable. Cook makes it sound as if the motivations for the revisions were aesthetic, but the rest of the events surrounding the eventual broadcast of the play suggest otherwise.

Patterns had been written for CBS’s Studio One, but the executives at CBS didn’t like it so Serling had to shop it around. No explanation is given for why what had been unacceptable for CBS was soon afterward deemed acceptable for NBC’s Kraft Television Theater. The implication is that it was the script doctoring performed by Cook and Serling, or more specifically, that it was the replacement of the original ending with one that would have been more palatable to television executives and, more importantly, to the advertisers they hoped to attract. Media moguls and the corporations that paid handsomely to advertise on popular programs such as Studio One and Kraft Television Theater would undoubtedly have taken offense at Serling’s original denunciation of the immorality of corporate America, so the denunciation was replaced by what was effectively a defense of that immorality.

Serling sold out. He had intended his play to be a moral indictment of corporate culture but ended with a piece that appears to celebrate that culture.[8]

The sell-out is even more striking when you consider how close all this is to Serling himself:

Serling acknowledges this himself when he writes in the Bantam paperback version of Patterns that the success of the play took him “into television’s elite quickly and fabulously.” Serling, like his character Staples, had just moved with his wife from Ohio around the time Patterns was broadcast. That must have been some eye-opening move. Serling had a great script, a script for which television was not quite ready, so in order to get it produced, he made it less great. He sold out, not so spectacularly as Staples, of course, but still, he sold out.

Piety adds that “[h]is crime, if you can call it that, was pretty innocuous, and he more than made up for it with the wonderful and uplifting programs he gave us later.” Well, while acknowledging Serling’s talents, I, for one, could do without all that “uplifting” liberal goop.

Though forgiving his hero, Piety still hates capitalism, of course, but goes on to make some good points about how “anachronistic” the portrait of capitalism is here. The emphasis on “growth” is literally its summum bonum, for example, although we could point out that this is still shared by both Left and Right today. The almost patroon-like nature of Ramsey & Co., which is still being run, however evilly, by the son of the founder and his Number Two, however ill-used, who’s been with them for forty-five years (!), is unheard of today, where CEOs come and go with great celerity. Above all, when did an executive actually die of shame? “They would appear to have become inured to that,” he remarks dryly.

Of course, enjoyment of anachronism is my favorite vice. In addition to the architecture, there’s lots of other period touches. The offices of The Ramsey Corp., atop the Ramsey Building (aka The Equitable Building, aka 120 Broadway) are vast and impressive, but the offices and conference rooms are decorated like Grandma’s house. (On his first day, Staples picks up a pen and says, “Well, at least this isn’t Early American.”)

This is consistent with the ad agency offices in the contemporary film A Face in the Crowd (Kazan, 1957) or the later TV episode “A Stop at Willoughby.” By contrast, the offices of Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, even in the first season (1960), look strikingly Mid-Century, an indication that the agency sees itself as being on the cutting edge. This recalls Matthew Weiner’s admonition that people don’t all start dressing in a certain way because, hey, it’s the ‘60s now! The offices of Ramsey & Co. by contrast are decorated like Betty Draper’s suburban home.[9]

The building itself[10] is of some personal interest, as I worked for a time around the corner, at 1 Wall Street. Even so, you might enjoy period views of Wall Street and Trinity Church, next door to what would become Ground Zero, and featuring the prominent gravesite of the recently popularized Alexander Hamilton.

For a Serling production, there’s not as much smoking as you’d think there’d be. As for alcohol, Briggs keeps a bottle in his desk and, as we’ll see, drinks in his office late at night; after his fatal heart attack at work, boss Ramsey goes into his office, sees the bottle still on the desk, sits down and takes it in hand, contemplating it out of – what? Guilt? Surprise? Of course, it’s not an ad agency, but it’s far from Roger Sterling’s epic soliloquy:

Roger Sterling: I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could dream of.

Don Draper: That’s why I got in.

Roger Sterling: So enjoy it.

Don Draper: [drinks] I’m doing my best here.

Roger Sterling: [scoffs] No, you’re not. You don’t know how to drink. Your whole generation, you drink for the wrong reasons. My generation, we drink because it’s good. Because it feels better than unbuttoning your collar. Because we deserve it. We drink because it’s what men do.[11]

There’s some fifth business with coffee – even an attempt to characterize Staples by calling him a “coffee man” and Ramsey sharing his father’s old recipe for brewing – that almost recalls the use of coffee as an all-purpose means of social lubrication in the work of Coleman Francis.[12] Was this that common in ’50s screenwriting? I wonder if Coleman picked it up from Serling and company, rather than it being a personal idiosyncrasy. Working as they all did in the heavily caffeinated world of TV and film production, it’s not surprising.

The most notable anachronism is when Staples attempts to ingratiate himself with Briggs by buying his kid a birthday present: a rifle. Of course, Staples is a naïve Midwesterner, but Briggs and the kid are delighted and can’t wait to start shooting up some stuff. Remember, this was a time when high school kids in NYC joined shooting clubs at school and carried their rifles on the subway.

It’s interesting to hear Briggs sneer that the company has not “grown” but merely “expanded” under Ramsey fils and his endless corporate acquisitions. This was right before the “conglomerate” fad, when companies figured they could beat the business cycle of boom and bust by acquiring companies in a half-dozen or so different industries (Warner Brothers, for example, was acquired by the Kinney Shoe Company, with expectedly dire artistic results); like most such ideas, it worked until it didn’t. It was then replaced by the buy-out and sell-off mania memorialized in Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good” speech in Wall Street (Stone, 1983). Today, it sounds a lot like Trump’s “good manufacturing jobs” versus “Wall Street financial shenanigans.” Which is to say, it seems to just keep going on; until it doesn’t.

The performances are quite good, living up to the film’s reputation. Ed Begley is especially outstanding in the key role of the out of touch and, frankly, more than a little masochistic Bill Briggs.[13] He eventually works himself up into an epic rant in his office one late night (where are the security guards? Oh, right, pre-9/11) when Staples asks, out of pity, why Ramsey doesn’t just fire him:

William Briggs: 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. Small humiliations. It all starts out on a scale so subtle, so microscopic that at first you can’t really believe it’s happening at all. But gradually the thing begins to take shape. The pieces fit together – all the little bits. And it becomes unmistakable. They chip away at your pride, your security until you begin to have doubts, and then fears.

That’s Serling’s idea of how the evil corporate boss works, and frankly, I’ve been there a few times myself. But the idea of these subtle “patterns” (get it?), deliberate “small humiliations” that you don’t notice at first but gradually “take shape” and “the pieces fit together” sounds a lot like the liberal caricature of Right-wing “paranoia” about Communism, the sort of thing Serling would pillory over and over (e.g., out of many, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) and later film critics would make careers sneering about in films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. As Lenin said, all politics boils down to who/whom.[14]

Also quite good is Van Heflin as Staples, who just wants to do a good job and treat everyone like a fellow human, but gets used as a career – and life – ending weapon. There was something about Heflin’s voice and mannerisms that I couldn’t place for quite a while until the last scene with his wife, who’s played by Beatrice Straight. Of course, he’s channeling William Holden, who plays a broadly similar role opposite – Beatrice Straight! – in Network (Lumet, 1976), a broadly similar film, written by Serling’s Golden Age of TV Drama colleague Paddy Chayefsky. [15]

Patterns, network, get it?[16]

Patterns certainly deserves a look, although it hasn’t been served well in the DVD or even VHS eras, to judge from the jumble of obscure and hand-made-looking listings on Amazon. There is now (as of September 2016) a Blu-Ray from The Film Detective, “a company determined to offer classic fare on blu-ray given the star treatment for reasonable prices.” Hopefully their restoration is better than their syntax.

Patterns, the TV script, was, as noted above, also given the paperback treatment in the ‘60s, with commentary by Rod. This and other long-out-of-print collections of Serling’s work, including Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, are being brought back as an inexpensive series of Kindles. The first volume of “Early Works,” Patterns: Four Television Plays with the Author’s Personal Commentaries, continues, in the “personal commentaries” and the informative introduction by Dawidziak, to promote the myth of heroic Rod versus the nasty TV networks, but now you know better, right? So treat yourself to an anachronistic New Year!

Notes

1. Wikipedia: “The opening and closing sequences of the TV series The Prisoner are considered iconic, ‘one of the great set-ups of genre drama.’ The title sequence (seen in all but two episodes) begins with a clouded sky and the sound of thunder, the latter becoming that of a jet engine. As the theme music begins, the view dissolves to reveal a stern-faced man, the future Number Six, driving rapidly in his Lotus Seven down an empty highway (actually the bottom end of the recently opened Santa Pod Raceway drag strip in Bedfordshire), then past the Houses of Parliament in London, into an underground car park. Entering the building through a set of double doors labelled ‘Way Out’, he then strides down a long, narrow corridor leading to another set of double doors; he pulls these open with great ferocity. The man mounts a fierce (but inaudible) argument before a man (played by series co-creator George Markstein) at a desk, delivers an envelope marked ‘Private – Personal – By Hand’ (presumably his letter of resignation) to the other man, and slams his fist onto the desk, smashing the saucer of a cup of tea. Throughout all of this, the man behind the desk is not seen to speak and appears to be fiddling with a pen, so it never becomes clear whether he is even listening to what is being said.” It can also be viewed here. For more on The Prisoner, see “Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner” in Collin Cleary, Summoning the Gods: Essays on Paganism in a God-Forsaken World (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2011).

2. It’s odd to think that at the time, Patterns was only ten years in the past, while both are now over a half century old!

3. The fatal boardroom scene, where Briggs is driven to his heart attack, closely resembles the opening meeting in “A Stop at Willoughby,” even, as we’ll see, down to the décor.

4. Well, I think so. “Mad Men’s creator, Matthew Weiner has said that he made his cast watch these ten movies before they stepped foot on set.” One of which is Patterns, at least. See IMDB, here.

5. Gene Roddenberry, of course, gives him a run for his money.

6. When he dresses down Briggs in the earlier boardroom scene, he sneers at Briggs’ concern for firing five hundred workers, pointing out that with the savings he’ll be able to employ another thousand workers within six months.

7. A Criterion collection, The Golden Age of Television, which includes the original TV broadcast of Patterns.

8. “Rod Serling’s Patterns,” April 16, 2014, here. (This piece originally appeared in the April 11-13 Weekend Edition of Counterpunch under the title “A Dangerously Flawed View of Capitalism.) Piety adds that “ I find it incredible that the incoherencies in Patterns and the implausibility of its ending continue to be overlooked by critics.”

9. By contrast, Gayle Wynand’s office in The Fountainhead (Vidor, 1949) makes Raymond Massey look like he’s back in the future of Things to Come (Menzies, 1936).

10. The last skyscraper erected without setbacks; the first zoning laws were passed to prevent any more buildings going straight up and creating vast canyons of darkness on the street level, although on Wall Street it seems appropriate.

11. Mad Men: “New Amsterdam” (#1.4, 2007).

12. “A bizarre emphasis on coffee, light aircraft and soul-crushing tragedy.” TVTropes, here.

13. A reviewer at IMBD notes that “Comparing the REAL Ed Begley with the scrawny, whining little namesake that sprung somehow from his loins is indeed the definitive statement on how low the acting ‘profession’ has sunk.” The “scrawny” Ed Begley, whose politics would do Rod proud, recently announced he was dropping the “Jr.” from his name, apparently thinking everyone has forgotten about the “real” Ed Begley.

14. I explore the idea that Left-wing ideas about “fascism” are based on projection in “The Fraud of Miss Brodie,” reprinted in Green Nazis in Space! (San Francisco: Counter-Currents, 2016).

15. Network won plenty of Oscars, including one for Straight. According to Wikipedia, “Straight’s performance as Louise Schumacher occupied only five minutes and two seconds of screen time, making it the shortest performance to win an Oscar (as of 2014), breaking Gloria Grahame‘s nine minutes and 32 seconds screen time record for The Bad and the Beautiful in 1953.” Additionally, “Peter Finch died before the 1977 ceremony and was the only performer to win a posthumous Academy Award until Heath Ledger won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2009. “

16. For more on Network – “the best movie ever made” — see Trevor Lynch, “Ten Favorite Films,” here.

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One Comment

  1. R_Moreland
    Posted December 30, 2016 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    But the idea of these subtle “patterns” … sounds a lot like the liberal caricature of Right-wing “paranoia” about Communism, the sort of thing Serling would pillory over and over (e.g., out of many, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street”) …

    I saw “The Monsters” thias a rerun way back when I still had a television set. I also came across a short story version in a dogeared paperback edition of Twilight Zone, somewhere between the pit of a used book shop and the summit of its highest shelf. Here is a scenario for an enterprising Alt Right video maker. Take those classic Serling episodes and update them for today.

    For your consideration: “The Monsters are Due on Maple University.”

    The diverse students on one of today’s progressive and inclusive universities get wind that (horrors!) Waffen SS stormtroopers resurrected from the icy depths of Lake Totenkopf are marching onto campus. The result is mass hysteria, with protests, sensitivity sessions and effigy burnings the order of the day. As students and faculty hunker down in their bomb shelter safe spaces anticipating being machinegunned in ditches dug along the main quad, the Monster appears: a guy in a sports jacket and fashy haircut who gives a guest lecture on White identity politics. Then he departs campus without so much as a single bullet being fired into the back of a multicultural neck. Having “survived” the Monster, students and faculty all shake their heads at how easily they were stampeded. Until they get wind of a pattern of microaggressions committed by frat bro’s at 3AM and once again the safe spaces are filled with huddled snowflake masses…

    Thing is, the social pathologies which Serling made such sport of were usually those symptomatic of the Left, though he tried to pin them on the Right. (There was, of course, good reason to fear communism back in the 1950s-60s: nuclear armed USSR, Mao beating the drum for global revolution, proven CPUSA infiltration of Hollywood, then SDS/Black Panther mayhem in the streets, etc.). Today it is the Left which goes into frenzies of paranoia over the slightest deviation against its orthodoxy, witness the destruction of careers of dissenters against the egalitarian party line on race as well as the Orwellian hatespeak laws and witch hunts over those microaggressions.

    If Serling meant Twilight Zone to be a running social commentary about the orthodoxies of his time, then perhaps it is time to enter a new dimension and turn the tables. Just imagine an episode about an Earth with no countries and no religion (it’s easy if you try) where goodthinking multicultists board spaceships which will take them, they are told by undocumented xenopmorphs, to a planet where the motto is: “To Serve Persons.”

    Next stop, the Alt Right Zone!

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