Patterns of Power

For years I had noticed the mention of Rod Serling’s mid-50‘s video play and film “Patterns”. It is often suggested as an even darker, more realistic side of “Man in a Grey Flannel Suit” and stands in stark contrast to the current darling of the period, Mad Men.

As a fan of Twilight Zone, I could see Serling’s writing craft and character development clearly on display in this gritty film about big business, ambition, deferential power grabbing. Amazingly, though produced nearly 60 years ago, the human greed for power at the cost of humanity resinates today as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street ideals.

It tells 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 values as well the industrial exceptionalism ideal. And, it is the case of the protagonist Fred Staples, a comparatively youthful industrial engineer brought in by Ramsey, ultimately to replace Briggs.

For its time period, the ending is very non-hollywood, as the thoroughly devastated Staples, intent on quitting, nevertheless takes on his late predecessor’s weighty responsibilities. (Spoiler alert!)In a compelling last sequence, Ramsey, unregenerate as ever, dares our hero to compete for control of the company, while allowing Staples to operate under is own rules of conduct, as long as the ultimate goal is the growth and expansion of Ramsey & Co. Staples’ defiant acceptance of this challenge is especially unusual for this time period, when the general view of business was as benign benefactors. But it is true to the film’s premise, and a more likely representation of what happens in the mahogany paneled executives suites. It makes for forceful drama, without a minimum of melodramatic overtones.

The cinematography and art direction for this film — while obviously produced on a limited budget — reflect taste, wealth and the tension of this frenetic world of business. But the difference between this and many other similar films of the time is present in Serling’s words and ideas, giving it power and distinction, and making “Patterns” a nuanced snapshot of big business.

Available on Netflix, and shown occasionally on TCM. See it.

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