Recently I watched a copy of PATTERNS I had recorded from TCM the last time it aired. I delayed watching the film, because I enjoy EXECUTIVE SUITE and figured that any other film that explored corporate politics might seem like a pale imitation.
Rod Serling, who wrote so many great anthology dramas like Requiem for a Heavyweight, seems to have fashioned a story here that might be called Requiem for a Company Man. Not wanting to spoil the plot too much, Ed Begley plays an aging executive that is disgraced by an abusive boss (Everett Sloane). He refuses to resign and is soon embroiled in a vicious battle that puts his life in jeopardy. Meanwhile, Van Heflin (taking over from Richard Kiley in the original television version) plays a younger colleague who is groomed to take over.
While the motion picture is fairly engaging, there are a few questions that crop up while watching PATTERNS. One main question—what is the message of this film? Are we supposed to feel sorry for the old executive who is being squeezed out? Or are we supposed to realize that in the dog-eat-dog world of high-powered business, it’s a bloodthirsty sport where only the fittest survive? Maybe the message is to stand up to the bullies who dominate the financial district and control the way our country’s most successful industries are run.
Embedded throughout the narrative is the larger question about what big business means. Is it supposed to provide jobs and make society better; and how should it balance this so-called responsibility with its nefarious plans to exploit the public and make money?
When reaching the end of this film, one wonders if Serling’s script originally had a different resolution in mind. All the different points of view established in the story do not seem to be given closure before the final fade out. We are not sure what Heflin’s wife is willing to do make sure her husband will succeed. And Begley’s son learns about his father’s tragedy off screen, so we are deprived of seeing the impact it has on him.
In a lot of his other works, Serling never intends for the story to be ambiguous or left to interpretation, because he seems to have a goal with the narrative. But in this case, there is not much of an ending, almost like he was afraid to give us the whole truth. I sincerely doubt that he didn’t know where to take the story, but it does sort of end abruptly.
Serling approaches the subject matter in a hard-hitting style at first, but he seems to soften in the middle. As a result, PATTERNS loses its backbone and bogs down in sympathy and maudlin melodrama. Ultimately, the story is just a chronicle of boardroom maneuvering like EXECUTIVE SUITE, but this is a disappointing turn of events. Especially, since the story had such potential as a damning indictment of the abuses and corruption that take place at the top.
In EXECUTIVE SUITE, we see a transferring of power at the end of the picture. But in PATTERNS, all we see is a potential threat to the established hierarchy. We are not even assured that Van Heflin’s character will beat Sloane. PATTERNS is eighty-three minutes long, but I am not convinced it is a well-spent eighty-three minutes.
PATTERNS is a work that attempts to examine a complicated issue, sets it up in black-and-white good-versus-evil tones, but then deliberately backs off. Perhaps Serling had hoped it would seem intelligent and thought provoking (and artistic) instead of coming off as preachy and transparent.
I am not exactly referring to the production code. There is nothing the censors would object to in PATTERNS. But it looks like Serling compromised– instead of showing Sloane’s character lose a round to Heflin. It’s almost like the entire third act is missing. We have been set up for this big showdown between the two that doesn’t occur. Not done to avoid the censors, or because Serling was a lazy writer– but maybe he just got cold feet, and couldn’t bring himself to complete it the way the story would logically play out.
Personally, I think Serling probably had friends in offices like that (advertising execs who helped sponsor shows that bought and used his scripts). So he is not going to entirely bite the hand that feeds him. He is offering a pointed critique, but he stops short of the finish.
And the way the story goes at the end, Heflin’s character softens and decides to stay on at the company, after several scenes where he is going to throw in the proverbial towel. So he is definitely reversing himself, selling out, thinking he can win where Begley had failed. And Begley’s character probably thought that he could win when he was younger, too. Is it dramatic irony? Or are we left to arrive at that conclusion because it’s an unfinished story…?
Are there films where you feel the last few minutes are a bit of a let down?