Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Man In The White Suit (1951)

The joy of Ealing comedies is they're so often considered to be the domain of homely traditional English values, all quaint and innocuous. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and the very best of Ealing's output were trenchant affairs that took an obvious delight in their scalpel like incisions into the underbelly beyond their seemingly cosy appearance.

The Man In The White Suit is a prime example of such style.

Alexander Mackendrick, American born and raised in Scotland, was perhaps more disposed than most in turning a critical almost outsider like surgically aloof eye to the Ealing ethos and, in Alec Guinness' wonderful turn as inventor Sidney Stratton, he explores beautifully what his biographer Philip Kemp claims was his favourite theme, that of a 'lethal innocence' in his protagonists. Guinness captures an intoxicating level of dreaminess and haplessness as his invention of an indestructible, dirt resistant artificial fibre which spreads havoc in the Lancashire mill town. Across The Man In The White Suit's modest running time Mackendrick spares no one, focusing on both the boardrooms and the unions with the luckless Guinness, who only wanted to improve our lot, stuck in the middle. The thorny dilemma that Mackendrick wields his satirical scalpel at is the notion that in the creation of such a valuable resource, leads to hardship; the workforce and business will become untenable as no one would need purchase replacement suits. What will become of us all? is literally the question raised and suddenly the audience doesn't know who to root for, though we remain sympathetic to largely all concerned, and the script doesn't make it easy on us by offering us 'the answer', though it does end on a delightfully ambiguous, playfully sinister finale.

In approaching the subject matter in such a manner Mackendrick perfectly captures the vibe of the early 50s; a point in time that saw the nation moving slowly away from the post war hardships it had long endured towards the Tory prosperity of Macmillan's 'You've never had it so good' pledge.

The Man In The White Suit is a classic piece of British cinema as durable as the fibre Stratton created.

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