For Rod Serling, the creator of Twilight Zone and Night Gallery, pathos isn’t so much a creative tool as it is the main reason for creating. There’s hardly ever a moment in a Twilight Zone episode in which Serling isn’t offering a direct appeal to the viewer’s emotions or feelings, aimed directly at the audience’s collective super-ego. Serling’s work—while seminal and a personal favorite to me specifically—doesn’t often deal in subtlety or nuance. With Patterns—written by Serling (based on a teleplay he also wrote) several years before the Twilight Zone would premier—Serling doesn’t offer any of the science-fiction or horror tropes that would later define his career, but his affinity for painting the world as struggle between good and evil or right and wrong is in full effect.
Vic Helflin (perhaps best known as put-upon rancher Dan Evans in the original 3:10 to Yuma) plays Fred Staples, a rising superstar in the business world who has made a name for himself in small market cities. When Staples accepts a job with a ubiquitous industrial supply firm in Manhattan, he’s thrust into the barbaric world of corrupt corporate ambition and backstabbing. Limited to only a few locations, most within the confines of the corporation’s skyscraper offices, Patterns is a taut drama—a precursor and clear inspiration to David Mamet’s seminal Glengarry Glen Ross—that smothers the viewer, placing much of the action in crowded board rooms or office parties. Director Fielder Cook—a storied television director tasked with directing a big screen adaptation after Rod Serling’s made for TV film—doesn’t try too much, allowing the caliber of the performances (in addition to Heflin, Ed Begley plays the elderly, exploited corporate man and Everett Sloane plays the business’ ruthless leader) to both draw the viewer in and hold their attention.
Photographed by Boris Kauffman (who would shoot Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men a year later, incorporating many of the same techniques for Lumet’s timeless, claustrophobic drama), Patterns is presented in stark black and white, using heavy shadows to establish a menacing atmosphere. And while the central theme isn’t particularly enlightening—an excess of power and money lead to broken relationships and loneliness—its approach is far more interesting. Sloane’s Mr. Ramsey is a figure who is often referred to before he is revealed in his element. Like the shark in Jaws, Mr. Ramsey’s malignancy and the fear he inspires is on full display from early in the film, even when he is not, as Mr. Ramsey’s appearances are few and far between until the film has firmly established his reputation as a corporate-headhunter. When Sloane is eventually revealed there’s already a deep-rooted savagery to his name.
Patterns succeeds most as a showcase for its actors. Ed Begley is outstanding as Mr. Ramsey’s long-time vice-president, who is rapidly losing his good-standing with the company. Begley’s character is a man whose life has been consumed by his work—as another (too-on-the-nose) beat, Patterns features a running theme that sees Ramsey as a man who must reckon with the fact that he’s always put his business before his family. As his foil, Everett Sloane’s Mr. Ramsey is a boisterous villain, a character whom the film requires to chew as much scenery as possible. It’s no surprise that the film’s best sequences are when Begley and Ramsey are able to square up and trade punches.
While the film bears little resemblance to Serling’s more infamous, high-concept journeys into the “dimension of imagination,” at its core Patterns is a morality tale just like The Twilight Zone, trading aliens, time travel and creatures for more “realistic” fair but still trafficking in the same themes that would become a hallmark of Serling’s career.