I’m probably not alone in admitting that besides Obi-Wan Kenobi I couldn’t name another Alec Guinness character and I can assure you, you’ve never seen him like this before, and by that I mean running.
The Man in the White Suit is the first of two Alexander Mackendrick titles to make the cut for this year’s Blind Spot Series and the first of five British films. It’s about time I got my head out of Hollywood’s butt, at least for two weeks until Hail, Caesar! finally lands in UK cinemas.
Let’s get into it!
The most convincing reason for the Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination for Roger MacDougall, John Dighton, and Alexander Mackendrick is the way they effectively flip the tradtional binary opposition of ‘good vs. bad’ and give the viewer a reason to side with the ‘bad’ guy.
Now you may be sitting there rolling your eyes at the black and white picture above, not so much at the way Guinness is being manhandled by Nosferatu’s (in background) industrialist henchman, but purely at the fact that The Man in the White Suit is an old British film shot in black and white. But in retrosepct, upon final edit of this post, it occurred to me that this film would have half the impact if it ever underwent the sugical knife of a modern colour remastering. The black and white imagery is what delivers the charm of Mackendrick’s British classic and this film alone puts forward a highly convincing argument for the power of black and white film that is often overlooked while colour is taken for granted.
Now, let’s get into it.
Alec Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a misunderstood science enthusiast taking any old job at textile mills across the country in order to carry out his top secret, unauthorised research into an everlasting fabric. He has a loveable face, a secretive gait, a skeptical attitude to questioning. Who could blame him, it’s not everyday you invent a game-changing product and it’s even less likely that a simple factory worker would be believed.
This is the situation Sidney finds himself in, time and time again as he is thrown from the factory and thrust back into the maternal arms of the unemployment machine. But with the textile industry booming thanks to the onset of capitalistic industrialisation, work is easy to come by, at least that’s how it’s portrayed. Fortunately for Sidney this means his dream of creating an infinite long-chain molecule out of polymerised amino acids capable of resisting dirt and wear can finally be realised.
But, given Sidney’s schoolboy mischief and jovial secrecy his dream is justifiably backhanded by mill owners as hogwash. Throw in a few thousand unexplained accounting anomalies all pointing the finger at the funny looking “bleep bloop” machine hidden in the corner of the room and Sidney just comes off as a lunatic, moving from mill to mill causing a ruccus.
But this is where the magic of The Man in the White Suit really lies. Sidney’s groundbreaking invention eventually catches the eye of Daphne Birnley, daughter of mill owner and industrialist Alan Birnley, who emplores her father to give Sidney a chance. With farcical plot mechanics and slapstick humour much of The Man in the White Suit feels like a blood relative of a Norman Wisdom picture but there is an earnest social commentary in there somewhere.
Beneath the boyish charm and light labour banter there’s strong willed female representation, labour disputes, and blitz imagery. But most importantly the science fiction isn’t just limited to wacky inventions, crazed scientists or extra-terrestrial life. Nope, The Man in the White Suit reimagines the potential of a groundbreaking textile invention to uproot the very fabric of society, at a time when post-war recovery was in full swing.
Okay, it isn’t the coolest science fiction you’ll ever see and considering Alec Guinness went on to play Obi-Wan Kenobi some 25 years later I doubt it will be the most important sci-fi film on his resumè. But this shouldn’t detract from the Ealing charm that manages to instil a sci-fi comedy with politicised satire and an arguable progressive attitude to women.
Bertha, a low level labour hand at the Birnley mill often comes out with some rather poignant observations about the state of things in capitalist textile land. Similarities between Bertha and real-life Rita O’Grady are certainly justifiable in hindsight which just adds weight to the progressive argument. On the flip side Joan Greenwood’s Daphne has all the potential to deliver on her idealistic enabling of Sidney’s dream but falls short when she’s plonked on the mid-century railroad tracks of gender stereotypes, forced into playing the seductress and paternal play thing. Her performance is grand, but it just goes to show how far gender equality in cinema has come.
The finale offers no let up in the defined gender stereotypes of the era either. As the potential of Sidney’s invention to disrupt the entire labour chain dawns on both, the greedy self-centred industrialists and the hard-working labour committee at the same time Sidney is, with the help of Daphne, makes a break for the press to avoid the suppression of his long lasting boon to textile innovation. But no amount of altruistic enthusiasm, idealism, or other ism can persuade the viewer that on some level the amassed heads of capital and labour are right to suppress the man in the white suit.
Which brings us full circle. Despite everything we have come to expect from popular cinema, the rationalisation of the common man as the hero against a foreboding machine and the prevailing of one’s pursuit to change the world The Man in the White Suit goes against the grain somewhat and it’s difficult to get your head around at first.
Flustered I sat, watching the frantic final chase scene through the dim gloom of an unnamed Northern industrial town following a luminous ray of perseverance on his path to discover his destiny. But Sidney’s dreams are shattered by the unlikeliest of sources: his feeble looking landlady, who we meet fairly early on. She delivers the final crushing blow that literally rips his dream apart, throws it to the ground and squashes it into the polluted rain soaked cobble stones. She says it like it is and the town get their cruel laughs in while they can.
But despite Mrs. Watson’s desperate bid to maintain the status quo with her forlorn, almost pitiful cry of, “Why can’t you scientists leave things alone?” We can rest in the comfort that innovators like Sidney, films like The Man in the White Suit and the deft satire instilled in the screenplay will stand the test of time to one day be called upon to show how energetic innovation can inspire a generation.
The Man in the White Suit is full old-timesy banter, slapstick humour, comical chase scenes and traditional stereotypes but for its meticulous manipulation of the ‘good vs bad’ trope it is certainly a Must-see and probably a film that will have me thinking about it for weeks to come.