The Man in the White Suit (1951)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 April (7.20 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit is almost the quintessential Ealing film. It’s very funny. The film was Oscar nominated for its screenplay, which is a supreme example of packing welters of story and characterisation into a script that allows a running time of less than ninety minutes. And it runs breathlessly, introducing its people and mining their nuances for comic effect, which more often than not works. But it’s also a satire, and beneath the fun rather an acerbic one, telling how capitalism pulls rank when faced with the possibility of progress that could halt its drip-feed of money.

Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a labourer in various textile mills around Greater Manchester who also happens to be a brilliant research chemist. His dream is to create an everlasting fibre, but with each job he ends up being sacked because of the materials bills he runs up. While working at Birnley Mill, he manages to land himself a research role (a dream for him, though he blithely ignores the fact it’s an unpaid position) along with the friendship of the propreitor’s daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It’s she who persuades her father (Cecil Parker) to fund his research, and after several failed attempts – which result in explosions – he hits success. The fibre he invents is not only virtually indestructible, it can also repel any dirt that comes into contact with it.

Sidney, now hailed as a genius and a revolutionary for the textiles industry, has a brilliant white suit tailored especially for him from the fibre. Due to radioactive elements in the material, it has a luminous quality. But then the trouble begins. Other mill owners get wind of what’s happened and work out the obvious – that Sidney’s invention will spell the end of their industry. Over time, the suppressed workers of the mills realise this too can only have an adverse impact on their jobs. As a result they all try to stifle Sidney, first aiming to persuade him to sell his invention and ultimately resorting to keeping him locked up him before he can reach Manchester’s press offices and turn the miraculous fabric into public reality.

The film keeps its narrative light. Its first half covers Sidney’s determined efforts to continue his research, his tendency to fade into the background so that can avoid detection for as long as possible. When he’s funded, put out fellow researchers are herded into tiny, cramped rooms while he carries on, his experiments blowing up so that he can only activate them while hiding behind sandbags and wearing a Home Guard helmet. Later, as he’s kept under lock and key while the mill owners figure out what to do with them, he escapes and sparks a madcap chase through the working class streets, the night time offering no help to him as his suit glows irrepressibly in the dark. As is traditional with Ealing’s material, nobody ever gets hurt and the conclusion, while bittersweet, contains notes of optimism because it’s made clear the story doesn’t necessarily end here.

Despite that, The Man in the White Suit is a tale of complicated morality and the duplicity of big business. Sidney is portrayed largely as an innocent, devoid of any material ambitions, even to be paid for his work, because his goal is the loftier scientific ideal, and so he clashes irrevocably with the industrialists’ capitalist outlook. For their part he’s a threat, in particular when he makes it clear that he can’t be bought. Mr Birnley is the most beneficient of the mill owners, though to an extent that’s because he sees his company as owning Sidney’s contract. Also involved is Michael Gough, Daphne’s fiance and owner of a rival mill. The industrialists are led by Sir John Kierlaw, a decrepit but ghoulish figure played, in a delight of casting, by none other than Ernest Thesiger. It’s Sir John who outlines perhaps the owners’ darkest scheme, to pay Daphne £5,000 in order to make her seduce Sidney and get him to give up his secret formula. It’s a moment that’s subtly outlined in the film and no one says explicitly what they expect Daphne to do, but the underlying message is clear enough. Daphne plays along but is naturally appalled, not least with her fiance who joins the throng in asking her to go with it, putting his business interests ahead of their relationship. And of course it comes to naught. Sidney is unmoved and Daphne, relieved by his force of will, offers to help him escape.

Joan Greenwood could play morally dubious characters as she demonstrated in Ealing’s Kind Hearts and Coronets, but she’s largely straight edged here, though the glamour and especially the silky voice are present and correct. She easily outdoes the labourer, Bertha (Vida Hope), who through the smoke of Trade Union rhetoric and resentment is just as fascinated by Sidney as Daphne is. As for Guinness, in a standout role he remains single-minded throughout the story, as true to his work as he is to making it public, at no point thinking of himself but about the scientific achievement and its benefits. In some ways he’s the classic ‘little man’ battling forces much larger than himself, but Guinness wasn’t interested in playing Sidney as a straightforward hero, and added layers of nuance to his character. That’s why he can almost hide in plain sight, because he’s isn’t too conventionally good looking and – before wearing the suit – never draws attention to himself. And besides, Sidney comes across as a not altogether nice guy. He gives little back to both Daphne and Bertha, despite their interest in him, and his determination comes at the expense of any thought to others. His conscience is only pricked late in the film when Edie Martin, whose living is made from the banality of washing clothes, challenges him about where his invention will leave people like her.

Whether this is Mackendrick’s best film is tougher to answer. As with much of his disappointingly slim list of directorial credits, there’s a lot going on in The Man in the White Suit, yet it’s possible to enjoy it for its dry wit and the affection it has for its richly drawn characters without worrying overly about the darker elements dancing beneath the surface. While Mackendrick was ever at odds with Ealing Studios, especially as its fortunes faded in the mid-1950s, there’s something innately appealing about the work he did for them, the teasing at humanity, even if it’s shown in glimpses. Many argue that his masterpiece was his one significant Hollywood credit, Sweet Smell of Success, and though I’m certainly a big fan of it I think overall I might prefer the delicate balancing act between cynicism and optimism in the kindness of people that he portrayed in his five Ealing films.

And if all that isn’t enough, then consider that The Man in the White Suit was one big nose poke at the venerable Studio itself. Parker, playing Mr Birnley, was made to look like Ealing head, Michael Balcon, and asked to copy his mannerisms and even use some of his pet phrases.

The Man in the White Suit: *****

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7 Replies to “The Man in the White Suit (1951)”

  1. Great movie though of course, as with all his films, the characters can be quite hard to like as there is little sentiment and lots of ironic detachment which, especially in WHIDKY GALRE! can be so hard to take. But brilliant all the same!

    1. Thanks Sergio – personally I quite like that aspect to his films, but I agree that the realism and cynicism can put people off. Certainly there’s a time and place for showing something like SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS…

  2. Yes, this is comfortably one of the best films Ealing made. The actual best? Maybe, but I’ll let others decide – for me, it forms part of a solid body of work that studio seemed to produce effortlessly.
    And of course there’s another top flight performance from Guinness, a marvelously nuanced actor who I find myself appreciating more all the time.

    1. Thanks Colin. I’d put it up there with THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and KIND HEARTS as my pick of the bunch, probably not coincidentally all starring Guinness and with wry comments on contemporary Britain to punch home along with the comedy, which has obviously dated but can be fondly looked back upon. Sir Alec was great in these, wasn’t he, an almost perfect showcase for his talents.

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