Michael Bierut | Essays

Spoiler Alert! Or, Happy Father's Day

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. 

I enjoyed the newly released remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but like many others, I like the 1974 original better: the gritty verite of 1970s New York, the terse understatement of Robert Shaw's Mr. Blue, and, best of all, the deadpan, sly performance of Walter Matthau
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.

Posted in: Media, Obituaries

Comments [17]

Beautiful. Thank you.

great movies and great story

Really lovely tribute.
Rob Henning

This made my day. Every Christmas, my oversized (11 kids!) Irish Catholic family would watch "It's A Wonderful Life" repeatedly with my father. Toward the end of his life, Dad's memory was starting to fall apart, along with his body. The last Christmas he was alive, we all huddled in the living room to watch our traditional holiday film together. He squinted over his newspaper in his recliner and said "I think this is a rerun." It was sad how much it revealed about his condition, but it was also funny at a time when not much else made us laugh. He's been gone ten years and I still can't watch that movie without thinking of him. Thanks for touching the heart, Mr. Bierut. And Happy Father's Day.


Great story Michael. Was thinking about this yesterday myself. My dad (Chuck Moran) turned me on to some greats on the TV and in the actual theatre when I was old enough.

Can remember well Dad, my brother and I watching on Saturday night TV: "Fahrenheit 451," "Stalag 17," "Patton," "The Dirty Dozen," "The Masque of the Red Death" (Vincent Price), "Funny Girl," "The Odd Couple," "MASH," "The Magnificent Seven," "Planet of the Apes," "The Great Escape," "Logan's Run" and many others.

He'd make popcorn on the stove with oil and then melt butter and put everything in a brown paper bag with salt and shake the hell out of it. Good times.

He took my brother and me to see "Star Wars" — twice! — and the whole family would occasionally go to the DRIVE-IN. Can remember seeing "Herby the Love Bug," "The Shaggy Dog," "Apocalypse Now," and "Marathon Man." Still loved those double features and those crazy dancing hot dogs and hamburgers at the beginning.

After cable and video came out, he stopped going to movies. He would have been 70 this month.

Can't wait to turn my son on to "grown up" movies once he's old enough (although we've really enjoyed the animated stuff so far). Fun times ahead!

Happy Father's Day, indeed!

Very Respectfully,
Joe Moran

My favorite memories of my father are always the ones that exasperated me the most as a child. As I grow older they are simply endearing. Thank you for reminding me of that fact.

What Debbie said.

My dad read the tv guide a week ahead to tell me when classics were on. He was a pretty tough guy, but two perennials always brought tears to his eyes: the Alastair Sim A Christmas Carol when Scrooge gets giddy that he hasn't missed Christmas, and Going My Way, at the end, when Barry Fitzgerald's 90-year-old mother, whom he hasn't seen in 50 years, comes into the church.

GREAT STORY... You dad was a very cool guy, sorry you lost him at such a young age, but now I know WHERE you got you interest, humor, curiosity and good nature. Here's to great fathers and the lessons they teach us!
Eric Baker

Delicious: "If you ever get a chance to benefit from this combination of informed but unequivocal approval, I highly recommend it."

My father worked as a machinist at a printing company in Minneapolis. He never quite understood what I did as an editor in New York -- his reference being typesetters and presses -- but he unequivocably approved, because it had something to do with words. His sage advice to me: Get a union job.

Good advice, dad.

Linda Lee


Like you, my dad had great influence of my becoming a graphic designer. Dad was/still is a paper merchant and would bring home beautiful printed samples from the Golden days of Champion Paper and Mohawk. Many of those things I kept from a young age.

I remember going on emergency deliveries on Saturday mornings with cases of paper in the back of the Country Squire...

One afternoon, my dad called home to say that his car had been stolen while on a sales call in downtown Boston. As a strange twist, 30+ years later, that printers' building is now where I live and have my studio.


A beautiful post Michael, thank you.

Ricardo – thanks for the spoilers...!

Val Kildea

Your father must have been unbelievably proud of you even at 13. I wish he could see the amazing man you became—a guy who loves his wife and family and still has time to be so talented, smart, funny, critically engaging . . . you deserve that Linotype machine.

Ricardo – thanks for the spoilers...!

...Eh? I think you meant to thank M.A. Peel (my post was directly above Peel's). :-)

So enjoyed this. Happy Father's Day to you, too, Mr. Bierut.
Mitzie Testani

It's funny how a little quirk or eccentricity can go from being merely endearing to a synecdoche for the person.

My father instilled in me a love of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals; I remember being woken up with a rousing rendition of 'Oh What A Beautiful Morning' more often than an alarm.

Thank you so much for this. Happy Father's Day
Paul Costen

Spot on with this write-up, I truly think this website needs much more consideration. I’ll probably be again to read much more, thanks for that info.
Dennis Hobson

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