The story at the heart of the 1956 film Patterns is both familiar and powerful, since it presents a moral dilemma which is as relevant and common today as it has ever been. Although many people will encounter their version of this problem in a different manner and setting than that presented in the movie, the principles involved and the difficulties to be surmounted will remain fundamentally the same. And so, like so many of the great classic films, Patterns is a morality tale of sorts; but since the credibility of its central situation depends on the creation of fully developed characters to make its point clear, the movie stands on its own feet, so to speak. The characters and the story are absorbing and memorable, and because of that, so is the point made throughout it.
Patterns was the first great television success of writer Rod Serling, most famous for his television series The Twilight Zone. The film we are discussing was in fact adapted for the movies a year after the original drama aired on television to wide acclaim. Although the script was slightly altered and expanded for the film, it may very well be that its tight construction and single-minded concentration on the main plot are largely due to the compactness then required for TV screenplays. Patterns runs a relatively brief 83 minutes, and its plot develops with remarkable speed and precision.
The movie tells the tale of Fred Staples (played by the always reliable Van Heflin), who comes to New York City after having been hired as an executive by corporation magnate Ramsey (Everett Sloane). Fresh from a small town in Ohio, Staples is dazzled by the gigantic corporation and its lavishness–the company found and furnished a house for Fred and his wife Nancy (Beatrice Straight), and Staples`s office has been freshly redecorated. He immediately finds a friend in Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), who works on projects similar to his own, but both men are somewhat taken aback when Briggs`s loyal and long-time secretary Marge Fleming (Elizabeth Wilson) is assigned to Staples. Furthermore, Ramsey humiliates Briggs at executive meetings and finds fault with his work, praising and encouraging Staples despite Staples`s insistence that his work is in collaboration with Briggs. It is soon obvious to all that Ramsey wants to get rid of Briggs and replace him with Staples, despite all considerations of fairness and humanity. Indeed, Ramsey`s creed is that of the ruthless corporate king–efficiency and profit before all else–while Briggs has always maintained (sometimes inconveniently so) that the human factor is more important than the financial one. And Staples is soon caught in the middle of this dilemma, torn between the prospect of dazzling advancement in his chosen career or his friendship with Briggs and their shared creed of humanity and justice.
This summary necessarily simplifies much of the plot, but the movie`s strength lies mainly in its creation of nuanced characters–Staples is not the clear-cut hero of weak morality plays. As human as the rest of us, he is faced with powerful temptations as well as seemingly constricting situations. The film does a fine job of showing the helplessness of men confronted with executive injustice and the confining patterns of logic-driven oppression. Yet the movie`s title refers not only to the cunning pattern of humiliation and subtle degradation by which Ramsey attempts to rid himself of Briggs; it also alludes to the patterns of business, and of the work and ambition and office routine and human dependence and affection which are all found within that workplace as well.
Patterns opens with a distant view of New York City before showing us the daunting skyscrapers and towering office buildings from the ground up, dwarfing the viewer as it does the passers-by. Several times throughout the film we are given this claustrophic view of the city, and always the impression is given that humans are tolerated by these concrete giants, instead of the other way around; power seems inherent in the structures instead of in those who created, built, and populate them. It is both ironic and fitting that the firm for which Staples works is a construction company, for during the film we are confronted with a choice between the value of an apparently insignificant individual and the good of an immense and powerful business. Based on the architecture alone, we should choose the latter alternative, for in such an atmosphere, a single person appears to count for nothing. But next to the office building is a church, and the camera glides over it, its spires, and its clock during the opening credits. While the hint is subtle, it is unmistakeable; man is responsible to an authority higher than any skyscraper, although that may not be architecturally true. And this point is remade in cinematic terms in a crucial shot near the end of the film, when we see Staples and the other executives from Briggs`s point of view as they tower over him.
Although the film is short, almost all of its characters are well-rounded, and indeed several suggest a complexity that would have been worth exploring a little longer. Marge Fleming, who is first Briggs`s secretary and then Staples`s, is very interesting; her entire life seems to center around the office, and it is clear that only she understands from the start what is going to happen. Although we get a very good sense of her character as it is, something more about her would not have come amiss. And Nancy Staples is also intriguing. She seems deeply attracted to power and wealth, even dangerously so, in the party sequence when Ramsey comes to the Staples` house; her relationship with her husband could have profited from a deeper exploration.
The movie`s conclusion, while satisfying in one way, may in fact raise more questions than it solves. Read one way, it appears to tie the picture up very neatly, but in another, it opens the possibility that a new and not very different variation of an old pattern is being woven, especially if we take into consideration Nancy`s happiness with the results and Fred`s earlier honesty concerning his ambition. In either case, the film raises complex questions and may be resisting the urge to give simple answers. In any case, it is a very well-crafted film, an honest film, and a worthwhile exploration of an issue which every viewer will unfortunately recognize, since it arose before skyscrapers were thought of and will persist long after they have eroded into dusty heaps.