Professional Pictures: Movies About Our Day Jobs

Welcome to those post-Labor Day blues, when the days dwindle down and chilly evening breezes return. Often at this time, we enjoy a heady dose of Indian summer, but even these sweet moments are tinged with melancholy, serving as sweet yet fleeting reminders of what we're about to lose.

Almost instinctively, we re-immerse ourselves in our professional lives, the activities and expertise that define us outside our own families, and that provide not just food on the table, but hopefully a sense of enthusiasm, forward propulsion and self-worth.

Although that last bit increasingly seems like a luxury commodity.

Globalization, rapid technology advances and most of all, a stubborn, protracted recession are combining to transform the traditional workplace- making the business world we're used to feel increasingly uncertain. The very concept of "job security" sounds quaint. For many it's a treacherous and scary new environment.

Still, the majority of us lucky enough to have a profession must pursue it, and deal as best we can with change... Change, after all is really nothing new, and it's most always scary because nobody knows what it will bring.

As seen through the revealing lens of timeless film, you can derive a measure of comfort and perspective amidst the seeming complexity of it all, because the pressures and vicissitudes of the work place, and the vagaries of office politics, go back a very long way.

Using great movies which profile different professions, I'll demonstrate my point.

The Law: Counsellor-at-Law
(1933) -- Perched high atop New York in his law office, attorney George Simon (John Barrymore) runs a busy, lucrative practice handling -- or rather, manhandling -- a dizzying array of high-profile cases. GS, as he is known to his staff, may run with (and occasionally bilk) the rich and powerful, but he also remembers his roots as an immigrant toiling on the streets of Greenwich Village, something his status-conscious socialite wife, Cora (Doris Kenyon), seems almost ashamed of. When George is faced with disbarment for an incident of misconduct in his past, his high and mighty world is turned upside-down. William Wyler's engrossing, head-spinning drama features Barrymore in a knockout role as a hotshot attorney with a formidable track record, a notable penchant for hard-luck cases, and a fawning softness for his well-to-do wife, whose affection does not seem nearly so unconditional. As a series of mini dramas play out around Simon -- involving agonized clients from the old neighborhood, interactions among his chirpy young staff, and the unspoken, unrequited love of faithful secretary Regina (Bebe Daniels) -- Counsellor inexorably builds to a tense climax. Filled with vivid performances by a slew of fine character actors, Counsellor is a rapid-fire drama of class and privilege, love and lucre.

Medicine/Psychiatry: Spellbound (1945) -- When young psychiatrist Dr. Edwardes (Gregory Peck) arrives to helm a posh new mental asylum, icy colleague Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) notices right away that this man does not appear to be who he says he is. Suspecting he's not a psychiatrist at all, but an amnesiac, she sets out to discover the truth about his mysterious, possibly murderous, past. Intriguing and mystifying, this "manhunt story" (as the director inventively described it) is pickled in a heady dose of psychoanalytic dialogue, thanks in part to producer David O. Selznick, an ardent Freudian. Aside from director Alfred Hitchcock's peerless handling of both the suspense surrounding J.B.'s identity and the love tryst that develops between Peck and Bergman, Spellbound remains celebrated because of the unforgettable dream sequence designed by Surrealist artist Salvador Dali (and directed by William Cameron Menzies). For sheer thrills and hypnotic weirdness, all enhanced by Miklos Rozsa's unsettling, Oscar-winning theremin score, Spellbound is hard to beat. It may even make you want to become a shrink!

Journalism: Ace In The Hole (1951) -- Thanks to womanizing, a drinking problem, and a defiant streak, fiery big-city journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been relegated to working a local beat for a tiny New Mexico daily, but he hasn't lost his taste for the big time. When a miner is trapped in a cave-in, Tatum exploits and prolongs the man's plight in hopes of engineering his own comeback to the big-city dailies which have discarded him. Prescient, cynical, and daring for its time, Billy Wilder's acid-tongued satire on media sensationalism stars Douglas in one of his fiercest early roles. As Tatum, he's a mean-spirited multiple loser pursuing self-glorification at any expense. The luscious Jan Sterling wins points, too, for her portrayal of the trapped man's battered, unhappy wife, Lorraine, who threatens to blow the lid off Tatum's whole circus act. Wilder's astute handling of the chaotic scene around the mine -- the media hordes, the gawkers and hangers-on, the souvenir and snack peddlers profiting off the situation -- has much to say about our culture's lingering appetite for "human interest" tragedy. A punchy indictment of news-as-entertainment, Wilder's Ace remains as stingingly on-target as ever.

Engineering: Patterns (1956) -- His company bought out by the larger, prestigious Ramsey and Co., headed by ruthless Walter Ramsey (Everett Sloane), engineer Fred Staples (Van Heflin) moves to New York and a senior position there. An established senior executive named William Briggs (Ed Begley, Sr.) takes Fred under his wing, but tensions mount when it becomes evident Staples is intended to replace the aging, increasingly jittery Briggs. Few discerning movie lovers would choose to miss out on a pure, understated masterpiece from the magic pen of Rod Serling. This story of brutal corporate politics feels every bit as relevant today. Though the DVD transfer itself is not of the highest quality, excellence in every aspect of the film more than compensates for it. "Patterns" represents spare, compact, intense drama with pitch-perfect playing. The vulnerable Begley in particular is fabulous as the fly caught in a corporate web of intrigue and deceit.

Advertising: Lover, Come Back (1961) -- In their second outing together, Rock Hudson and Doris Day play Jerry Webster and Carol Templeton, two rival advertising professionals with contrasting styles, each of whom are vying for the same account. While Jerry wins business with his knack for knowing how to entertain prospective clients (wink, wink), Carol is a more sober idea person who resents the competition's base tactics. "Vip", a mysterious new product, needs agency representation, and amidst assumed identities and other intrigues, we can't wait to learn who'll win the assignment. Tony Randall is on hand again as Peter Ramsay, Jerry's sad-sack, ineffectual boss. Director Delbert Mann's hilarious follow-up to Hudson-Day's first hit Pillow Talk is perhaps less well-known, but every bit as good. Rock particularly shines in two separate characterizations, while Randall's drunken elevator scene must be seen to be believed. Fast and sharp, with a vibrantly colorful early sixties look and feel, Lover will keep you hooked. Hooray for Vip!

TV Broadcasting: Network (1976) -- Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) is a type A network television executive who rides the wave of an unfolding ratings sensation broadcasting deranged televangelist Howard Beale (Peter Finch, in his final performance). Beale hits a chord with disillusioned Americans, urging them to chant his mantra: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore." But the Beale phenomenon may not last, as Howard's ever more bizarre rantings signal an emotional breakdown in the making. Director Sidney Lumet's devastating, disturbing satire of the modern broadcast age (written by Paddy Chayefsky) still registers over thirty years after its release. Beyond portraying a business that bypasses quality in its focused pursuit of eyeballs and dollars, television serves as metaphor for a society mired in superficiality and materialism. Dunaway is commanding in a caffeinated performance as ruthless Diana, William Holden unusually affecting as a washed-up veteran of TV's glory days, and British actor Finch a revelation as the unbalanced Beale, winning a posthumous Oscar for his work.

Finance: Wall Street (1987) -- Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) is a hungry young broker who makes a Faustian bargain by becoming the loyal acolyte of oily, ruthless trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Dazzled by all that money can buy, Bud sacrifices the values of balance and fair play instilled by his bewildered blue-collar dad, Carl (Martin Sheen), to ride high on Gekko's coattails-at least until their spectacular fall occurs. Oliver Stone's poisonous ode to the "the go, go "80s" hinges on Michael Douglas's bravura, Oscar-winning portrayal of Gekko, seemingly a composite of Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky, whose mantra "greed is good" justifies any means to execute the big deal, including insider trading. Subtle it's not, but then neither was the time, nor its players. Director Stone (whose father was a broker) expertly evokes the dizzying altitude of the mega-wealthy, and young Sheen is perfectly cast as a misguided but willing pawn in a high-stakes game that feels too good to be true -- and is. And truly, Douglas was never better. (It will be interesting to see how the sequel turns out.)

Real Estate: Glengarry, Glen Ross (1992) -- As a "cold" real-estate market dampens prospects, motivation consultant Blake (Alec Baldwin) challenges the sales staff at Premiere Properties to a pointedly competitive contest: find buyers or lose your position. Shelley "The Machine" Levine (Jack Lemmon), once a star huckster, can't seem to cut a break, and with a daughter in the hospital, becomes increasingly frantic. Meanwhile, egotistical Ricky Roma (Al Pacino) appears to be thriving amid the gloom, while beleaguered colleagues Dave Moss (Ed Harris) and George Aaronow (Alan Arkin) resort to a criminal scheme to get ahead. But who really wins and loses in this cutthroat set-up? Director James Foley's lacerating, foul-mouthed drama, adapted from David Mamet's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, is equal parts Arthur Miller and bald critique of Reaganomics-gone-bad. The terse dialogue, dreary office setting, and fist-gnawing sense of competition all push this stylish film into dramatic overdrive. Yet the heart and soul of "Glengarry" belongs to the tremendous ensemble cast: Arkin, Harris, Baldwin, and Pacino deliver stellar work, and Lemmon is brilliant as the achingly pathetic Levine, who may also be sufficiently panic-stricken to break the law. Edgy and dark, Glengarry endures as a potent film about white-collar desperation and the instinct for survival.

And finally, for the big picture:
The Corporation
(2004) -- Here we have an engrossing documentary which reveals the history of specific mandates under which corporations were originally instituted -- mainly for projects serving collective interests of communities. It ventures from there to paint a devastating picture of how these companies have evolved into corrupt, dysfunctional institutions existing solely to create wealth for employees and shareholders. Given how these mammoth, multi-national companies operate, the big losers will be our children, who may inherit a planet literally plundered by their forebears. This disturbing but illuminating film provides a timely exploration of the ascendance of the corporation to the most powerful, controlling, omnipresent force in society. Though big business types may claim the film-makers' portrait is a tad one-sided, directors Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott make their case in a fresh and engaging way, interspersing interviews with vintage industrial films, commercials and the like. The result is certainly thought-provoking, if not cautionary.

And now... I guess it's back to work.

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