‘Patterns’ Examination of Corporate Culture Still Resonates

Patterns is, above all, a reflection on the human relationship with success, something Rod Sterling admittedly had a troubled relationship with in his career.

“’You don’t got enough love in you, baby.’

‘People don’t need love. What they need is success in one form or another.'”

— Charles Bukowski, Factotum

When most people picture Rod Serling, they imagine the ominous, cigarette-smoking man with the serene voice who introduced and narrated each episode of The Twilight Zone. What they may not realize is how the same man wrote 92 of the show’s 152 episodes, making him one of the most prolific screenwriters in history. Even before Twilight Zone debuted, however, Serling had made his name penning some of television’s most pioneering dramas, which revolved around his preferred themes: morality, prejudice, civil justice, and the evolving human condition.

Perhaps the most famous of his early works, and the one which put him on the map, was his now classic tale of careerist ambition, competition, and sacrifice: Patterns. Originally written and presented on television on Kraft Television Theatre (yes, that Kraft) in 1955, then adapted by Serling for the big screen the following year, Patterns showed the world what the “Angry Young Man” of Hollywood was capable of, as well as what television and film still had to offer. Newly released on Blu-Ray as part of The Film Detective Restored Classics series, the 1956 film adaptation of Patterns shows the early talents of one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood history, and one which maintains a relevancy for 21st century viewers.

Patterns tells the story of two employees of the Ramsey & Co. Industrial Company in New York: Fred Staples (Van Heflin), a young, optimistic engineer looking to climb up the corporate ladder, and Bill Briggs (Ed Begley), a kind-hearted, long-time employee of the company who’s received little thanks for his work, and whom Staples has unknowingly been hired to replace. While Staples and Briggs quickly form a close friendship, their respective roles in the company are soon made clear as the cruel, foul-tempered CEO Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane), seeks to set them on a collision course. On Ramsey’s watch, there can only be room for one of them.

Surprisingly enough, Serling stated that Patterns wasn’t a product of any particular insight into culture of high-end business, as he claimed to never have worked in such an environment. Instead, he insisted the play was a “story of power”, one that could’ve been “a war story, a political story, or the story of a foreman on an assembly line”, and the kind of power struggles among the cast are evident in Patterns. From the get-go, the place of Briggs in Ramsey’s pecking order is made clear, despite Briggs’ decades of experience at the firm. On Staples’ first sit-in at a board meeting, Ramsey brings up a new production plan that will involve a short-term shut down of one particular factory. Briggs, however, objects to putting hundreds of men out of work. The two get into a shouting match, which devolves into Ramsey bellowing a tirade against Briggs, while the rest of the board, including Staples, sits in uncomfortable silence. As Staples learns, this is a regular pattern between the two, and a consistent point of humiliation for Briggs.

The arcs of Staples and Briggs are the parallel stories of a man rising in business and another man falling, very much setting up Briggs as a kind of future self for Staples, especially given the two men’s similar moralist outlooks. It’s thereby a story both of the conflict of powers and the conflict of generations. Yet, even while professionally at odds, the men maintain a deep compassion and respect for the other, making Staples’ career ambitions all the more difficult once he realizes Ramsey’s plans to give him Briggs’ job. Of course, Ramsey can’t simply fire Briggs after his years of service, and so instead chooses to verbally abuse and psychologically torment him until he finally caves.

The pressure on Briggs comes to a head after Staples discovers him drunk late one night in his office, waiting for his son to pick him up. With both men aware of Ramsey’s intentions, Staples pleads with Briggs to resign so as not to endure Ramsey’s torment for his remaining years. But Briggs refuses to let Ramsey win, saying he’ll continue to take Ramsey’s cruel machinations, which he describes to Staples.

So what do they do? They create a situation you can’t work in and finally you can’t live in. Where there’s 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 bit, and it becomes unmistakable. They chip away at your pride, your security, till you begin to have doubts. And then, fears… yes, I take it. The bigger the job, the more desperately you try to hold onto it.

In his commentary on the published book of Patterns, Rod Serling clarified the title by stating that “the patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world — lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it”. A line from Briggs in the teleplay, but not included in the film, helps tie the title to the story:

Because I’m that kind of man. The kind who gets used to a big salary and decides it’s more important than his pride. The chain that binds. Habit. Pattern. So I conjure up another illusion. That the other morning didn’t happen. And all the other mornings.

Briggs’ outburst in both the film and teleplay is the pinnacle of Serling’s point, illustrating a man simply trying to do his best for himself and his family. Briggs’ words are a stern look at the entrapment felt by anyone trying to make their way in the world and seeking the “idealized” life where a good job is a good life, regardless of the atmosphere or effect of said job, where the freedom of simply leaving is not so present (especially at Briggs’ age, where he’s not certain he could find other work). Briggs’ lament is another instance of the timeless question of the worth of one’s salary versus the worth of one’s soul, and what determines a “good career” even if said career is a drain on one’s physical and mental well-being.

Briggs’ “illusions” and “humiliations” embody the philosophy held by just about everyone in the competitive modern world: that getting ahead is the ultimate goal. Serling’s sympathetic characterization of Briggs, however, shows him more as the victim of an emboldened, gung-ho culture of movers and shakers, where a competitive, iron-willed man is the strongest man, and a sympathetic or considerate one is a weak link. It’s a commonplace outlook that endures into the modern era, and has become even more acid-etched in the commandments and expectations of big business and professionalism into the 21st century.

Despite his kind-heartedness, Briggs’ views prove contrary to the professional world he’s seen take root and grow around him, enveloping the “old days” of kinder, more considerate business culture in which he was raised. In the modern world around him, his morality won’t go unpunished. Success is the name of the game, and the ultimate end goal for any human being or company. Anything less, or anything preventing it, is simply unacceptable and unjustifiable. Especially when caring for a family, or running a company, how can one explain or afford charity if it’s a barrier to success? With this mentality, despite Briggs essentially locking himself into his own deathtrap, he’s determined to see it to the end.

Patterns is, above all, a reflection on the human relationship with success, something Sterling admittedly had a troubled relationship with in his career. With something so ingrained in the human psyche as the be-all and end-all of existence as success is, Patterns is reminder of the inevitable competition and conflict of such success. Especially for Serling, whose stories so often highlighted humanity’s capacity for, and responsibility towards, compassion and humanism, that success often requires abandonment of these philosophies is the ultimate tragedy. In dealing with the individual’s relationship with success, Patterns is also about his or her relationship with others, and how much they can value this latter relationship in professional atmospheres that so often seem to devalue it.

Patterns does at times tend to show its age, although not in its writing or its relevancy, in the contemporary perception of its themes. Whereas the many moral questions posed in Patterns remain true today, such sacrifices and conflicts of morality and career are generally accepted in the 21st century as intrinsic to big business, and (regrettably) part of the sacrifices made in taking on an especially lofty career. This is so much the case that to the contemporary viewer, Patterns may seem to be repeating something they already know, thereby somewhat shaving the edge off of its soapbox moments. This by no means dismisses the importance or relevancy of Patterns. If anything, it even enhances it, by demonstrating just how little has changed in the almost 60 years since its production.

In the afterword of the published teleplay, Serling describes the heart of Patterns‘ story as not the basic conflict of good and evil, but the “morality of the fringes”. Nobody in Patterns is an evil person, and there are no looming villains. Instead, they’re simply the products of the machine they inhabit. Ramsey admits to not being “a nice man”, but justifies it as a necessity of the high-pressure, competitive role in which he finds himself, as he explains to Staples at the film’s end:

“What do you want from me — apologies? I don’t apologize. What else? A nice, unsullied conscience? You walk out of here because you spoke your mind. Then what do you do? You go work for a nickel-and-dime outfit run by ‘nice people’ who won’t challenge you, beat your head in and make your talent reach a height you never dreamed of. A company where you won’t have to fight for anything, because you’re the best and there’s no competition. Where is everything is handed to you, and nothing is worth fighting for?”

Ramsey’s depicted as an antagonist, but a self-aware one. He understands how he is perceived, but justifies his behavior under its benefit to his business, thus more a product of the duties imposed on him than a lack of morals. Even by the film’s end, following Briggs’ death from a stress-induced heart attack, Staples has promised Ramsey a ferocity and antagonism in kind, locking himself into continuing Briggs’ battle.

Staples: Briggs had a forlorn wish. A little dream. That someday he’d come in here and break your jaw. I reserve that right to have that wish for myself.

Ramsey: I’ll have it drawn into the contract. With a little rider that gives me the same privilege.

Patterns illustrates the timely conflict of success: morality and generosity versus progress and careerism. While Staples feels the ache of what he’s been assigned to do, he acknowledges within himself his desire for growth in his career. In the industrial age of America, born of the 20th century and continuing into the 21st, how can one justify not seizing the opportunity for advancement, especially when one has a family to care for? How much can one afford kindness and generosity if such demands sacrifice of oneself? Can one justify the stalling of one’s success for the purpose of a clear conscience? If so, how does the world view such a person? As with his work on The Twilight Zone, Serling’s script possesses a certain prophetic, timeless nature, as many of the conflicts, moral struggles, and questions raised in Patterns are just as relevant in 2016.

Patterns has a pivotal place in the history of American television as being one of the earliest of examples of the capacity for television as a dramatic medium, at a time when television was immensely overshadowed by the blossoming film industry. It was a time when a company specializing in cheese products had its own television channel, a practice that seems to be returning in the era of Amazon and Playstation television networks. If shows such as The Sopranos ushered in the modern golden age of television at a time when it was mostly ridiculed, Patterns served as a kind of forefather: demonstrating the artistic capacity of a medium very much in its infancy at a time when it was still largely frowned upon, showing its capacity beyond simple commercialization and cheap entertainment. As Sterling has admitted, the film adaptation of Patterns, free of television’s obligations toward advertising, is able to fine-tune and draw out the dramatic moments cut short by the network’s requirements for commercial breaks. The film version of Patterns offers viewers a clearer version of Sterling’s vision, fleshed out and uninterrupted.

As is characteristic of Serling’s work, Patterns‘ resonance lies in its timelessness: it’s a story that will continue so long as the world remains a competitive and ambitious one, socially, professionally, and morally.

RATING 8 / 10