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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. 

*****

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