Warning: the following article contains spoilers for the plots of Citizen Kane (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), Stalag 17 (1953), Some Like It Hot (1959), The Longest Day (1962), and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974). Also, it is not, strictly speaking, about design.
This was one of my father's favorite movies. He especially liked the clever way that the scriptwriters dispensed with the complicated expository material that explained the workings of the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority's command center. As the movie begins, Matthau's character is giving a tour to a delegation of Japanese businessmen, and the tour provides the necessary background for the action that follows. The delegation reacts to the tour and to the mayhem that follows with the same smiling, cordial obliviousness, and Matthau abides this inconvenience with mounting comic exasperation, at one point calling them "monkeys" to their face. So it's a particularly funny moment near the film's end, when the leader of the group bows politely and, in perfect English, thanks Matthau for a such a fascinating tour.
I know my dad got a real kick out of this, because the first time we watched Pelham One Two Three together, at the first appearance of the Japanese tour he leaned in towards me and said, with barely disguised glee, "Walter Matthau doesn't realize they understand everything he's saying!"
Dad couldn't help it. He was a natural born spoiler.
Even if you were the only person in the room with him, my dad always took care to deliver his spoilers in a near-whisper. He loved movies, and nothing made him happier than when one of his favorites made an appearance as a rerun on late night tv. "Come in here, you've got to see this," he'd beckon, and you'd settle down next to him on the couch to watch, say, Stalag 17
. He'd watch Billy Wilder's prisoner of war drama in rapt silence until he couldn't stand it any more. Then he'd turn to you, point at the screen, and murmur solemnly, "Watch that light cord."
"But why, Dad? What light cord? Why is it important?"
My dad would just narrow his eyes mysteriously and say, "Just watch." Now, if you haven't seen Stalag 17 yet, I won't try to explain why the light cord is important, because it would sort of, you know, ruin the movie for you. But when it was finally revealed, Dad would simply turn toward me and nod sagely: see?
He wasn't always that explicit. Watching another Billy Wilder movie, Double Indemnity
, at the first appearance of Barbara Stanwyck, he would simply mutter with grim resignation, "This is not going to end well." Sometimes he would just wait for a favorite line. "Here it comes," he would say during Keenan Wynn's change-for-a-pay-phone confrontation with Peter Sellars in Dr. Strangelove
("If you don't get the President of the United States on that line, you know what's going to happen to you? You're going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.") "Is that just great?" he'd say afterwards. It was especially satisfying (or maybe excruciating) when the line came at the very end, like in Some Like It Hot
. He would repeat "Nobody's perfect!" for the rest of the day. Occasionally, I would manage to see a movie without the benefit of his advance counsel. After I told him I had finally seen Citizen Kane
in a college film class, he could only nod enthusiastically, clap me on the back, and exclaim, "Hey, Rosebud is the sled, right?"
Leonard Bierut was a partner in a company that sold printing equipment. He was in charge of sales, and I realize now how well suited he was to that job. A good salesman gives his prospect the sense of being an insider, of knowing information that others aren't privy to, of getting a deal that no one else knows about. That came easily to him; introducing a potential customer to a Heidelberg
was not that different than introducing me to The Longest Day
("Pay attention to that little clicker. It's going to be important later.") He was absolutely honest, genuinely liked people, and loved talking about the stuff he had to sell. From the time I was a child, I remember how he could take a complicated pile of cast iron and grease and turn it into a story. "The man who invented this thing died insane," he told me once on his shop floor, pointing to a Linotype
machine. This sounded disturbing to me. "But why, Dad?" "Well," he would say, "just look at it!" To this day I secretly want to own a Linotype machine.
Dad was somewhat alarmed when I announced my intention to become a graphic designer; almost all of the commercial artists he had ever seen were pasting up bowling alley scoresheets in the back of print shops. But he made some inquiries, and before long he was slipping me spare copies of Print and Communication Arts that he had managed to cadge from his ad agency accounts. He knew just enough about what I did to be an enthusiastic cheerleader, but not so much that he could tell whether my work was any good. Take my word for it: if you ever get a chance to benefit from this combination of informed but unequivocal approval, I highly recommend it.
For a guy who loved to know how the story ends, my dad's story ended way too soon. Leonard Bierut died at the age of 59. It was my thirtieth birthday. I miss him every day. Happy Father's Day, Dad.