Skip to main content

Some fool has invented an indestructible cloth.


The Man in the White Suit
(1951)

Alexander Mackendrick’s highly astute film is spun from a very simple “What if?” premise; a scientist creates a fabric that will not wear-out or retain dirt. From this he weaves a scintillating satire on capitalism that takes potshots at both the the workers and the industrialists, whose views connect at the point where the status quo is endangered.

Some have pointed to the dismay of Sidney Stratton’s (Alec Guinness) landlady, “Why can’t you scientists leave things as they are?” as a summary of the main message of the film itself (she, in particular, is marked as sympathetic as she forwent rent so Sidney could continue with his work). While the issue of (scientific) responsibility is certainly one of the themes present in the script (tellingly, Sidney requires radioactive materials as part of his shopping list of chemicals), it doesn’t resonate as the central one. Sidney himself is virtually a cypher, played with benign self-righteousness by Guinness but displaying little in the way of moral or ethical awareness of the implications of his project; the concerns expressed by others that his invention may impact their livelihoods do nothing to sway him (it has been suggested that he is essentially dislikable, unthinking of consequences and disregarding of others, but made sympathetic by Guinness). Indeed, he believes he is right even at the close. Meanwhile, those who oppose him on both sides have no qualms about detaining Sidney against his will if it guarantees their security.

Perhaps the film’s position is best summed up by a comment made on the imdb boards; the film is designed to make you think, not tell you what to think. While Ealing Studios at its creative peak was informed by a guiding social conscience (“the perfect studio for the welfare state”), there is also something darker at play in Mackendrick’s films (and also evident in the likes of Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets; The Man in the White Suit was co-scripted by Mackendrick, co-writer of Kind Hearts, John Dighton, and Roger MacDougall, who wrote the original play); a streak of pessimism regarding human nature. The textile barons and trade unions come across as essentially two sides of the same coin, so it is futile to look for right thinking from either.

In large part, the film plays out on their reactions to Sidney’s invention. One might read from the film that if ever a utopian society seemed feasible, one where, say, the current mechanisms and controlling elements of capitalism were no longer required, it would be rejected outright through shortsightedness and greed.  That is not to discount the theme of “what happens when the balance of nature is upset” or the idea that it condemns the notion that we do not need to foster responsibility for our actions. But, if that were really the guiding principal, we would surely be invited to sympathise with those whom Sidney’s “misguided” actions upset. We would also expect a clear negative signifier attached to his experiments, yet, as far as we are aware, his invention has no untoward health or environmental consequences (indeed, the process of the explosive honing of his formula is played for laughs).

Frank: You’re not even born yet. What do you think happened to all the other things? The razor blade that never gets blunt? The car that runs on water with a pinch of something in it? No, they’ll never let your stuff on the market in a million years.

It puts one in mind of conspiratorial stories of energy companies buying up patents on notional free-energy devices.

Daphne: The whole world’s going to bless you.

But in fact, the reverse is true. The very worker who tells him he doesn’t understand how things work quickly comes to the realisation:

Frank: But if this stuff never wears out, we’ll only have one to make.

And following this through to board level, production of the wonder material does not go ahead. Sidney is told:

Alan Bimley: To announce it now might upset the delicate balance of the market.

Everyone is profoundly cynical except for Sidney. There is no will to make the world (society) a better place because its “fabric” will not support the idea his invention represents, let alone the reality of it. Sidney’s invention is the antithesis to industry, which is based upon cyclical consumption and planned obsolescence. It is easy to see why all (bar the two women in Sidney’s life, opposites in terms of privilege but not so far apart in basic empathy) laugh in relief when Sidney’s suit exhibits a limited shelf life. But idealism (as expressed here in the purity of scientific theory) will out, and Sidney ends the film smiling with the realisation of where he went wrong.

Mackendrick’s film is not only beautifully shot and edited (his visual language is both economical and imaginative, his comic timing perfection itself) but boasts a wonderful cast. Aside from Guinness, who knows that the most impact comes from underplaying, foremost of the thespians is the glorious Joan Greenwood. Her character, Daphne Birnley, is the daughter of Cecil Parker’s textile baron, and we spend a good deal of the film unsure of her motivations. She is curious, attracted to Sidney for how different he is, but it only becomes fully evident that she is on his side following the scene where she is essentially invited to prostitute herself by all those concerned by Sidney’s behaviour (including her fiancé, Michael Gough’s Michael Corland). I suspect that Mackendrick was partly playing on audience familiarity with Greenwood’s devilishly self-serving character in Kind Hearts and Coronets, making the eventual reveal all the more powerful. As an aside, I wonder whether the aged character of Sir John was the inspiration for the decrepit head of George Clooney’s law firm in Intolerable Cruelty. Given the Coens appreciation of Ealing, I shouldn’t be surprised.

The Man in the White Suit ends, as it begins, with the comical sound of Sidney’s machine distilling away. It’s this, and Sidney’s sense of optimism, that prevents the film from finishing on an entirely downbeat note. It feels magnificently fresh 60 years on, mainly because the idea it explores are unchanging in their relevance. They must surely continue to be so as long society is structured according to, and dictated by, market forces. 

*****

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You can’t just outsource your entire life.

Tully (2018)
(SPOILERS) A major twist is revealed in the last fifteen minutes of Tully, one I'll happily admit not to have seen coming, but it says something about the movie that it failed to affect my misgivings over the picture up to that point either way. About the worst thing you can say about a twist is that it leaves you shrugging.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

Well, you did take advantage of a drunken sailor.

Tomb Raider (2018)
(SPOILERS) There's evidently an appetite out there for a decent Tomb Raider movie, given that the lousy 2001 incarnation was successful enough to spawn a (lousy) sequel, and that this lousier reboot, scarcely conceivably, may have attracted enough bums on seats to do likewise. If we're going to distinguish between order of demerits, we could characterise the Angelina Jolie movies as both pretty bad; Tomb Raider, in contrast, is unforgivably tedious.

If you want to have a staring contest with me, you will lose.

Phantom Thread (2017)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps surprisingly not the lowest grossing of last year's Best Picture Oscar nominees (that was Call Me by Your Name) but certainly the one with the least buzz as a genuine contender, subjected as Phantom Thread was to a range of views from masterpiece (the critics) to drudge (a fair selection of general viewers). The mixed reaction wasn’t so very far from Paul Thomas Anderson's earlier The Master, and one suspects the nomination was more to do with the golden glow of Daniel Day-Lewis in his first role in half a decade (and last ever, if he's to be believed) than mass Academy rapture with the picture. Which is ironic, as the relatively unknown Vicky Krieps steals the film from under him.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Yes, cake is my weakness.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
(SPOILERS) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is good fun, and sometimes, that’s enough. It doesn’t break any new ground, and the establishing act is considerably better than the rather rote plotting and character development that follows, but Jake Kasdan’s semi-sequel more than justifies the decision to return to the stomping ground of the tepid 1995 original, a movie sold on its pixels, and is comfortably able to coast on the selling point of hormonal teenagers embodying grown adults.

This is by some distance Kasdan’s biggest movie, and he benefits considerably from Gyula Pados’s cinematography. Kasdan isn’t, I’d suggest, a natural with action set pieces, and the best sequences are clearly prevized ones he’d have little control over (a helicopter chase, most notably). I’m guessing Pados was brought aboard because of his work on Predators and the Maze Runners (although not the lusher first movie), and he lends the picture a suitably verdant veneer. Wh…

The whole thing should just be your fucking nose!

A Star is Born (2018)
(SPOILERS) A shoe-in for Best Picture Oscar? Perhaps not, since it will have to beat at very least Roma and First Man to claim the prize, but this latest version of A Star is Born still comes laden with more acclaim than the previous three versions put together (and that's with a Best Picture nod for the 1937 original). While the film doesn't quite reach the consistent heights suggested by the majority of critics, who have evacuated their adjectival bowels lavishing it with superlatives, it's undoubtedly a remarkably well-made, stunningly acted piece, and perhaps even more notably, only rarely feels like its succumbing to just how familiar this tale of rise to, and parallel fall from, stardom has become.