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

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

Do forgive me for butting in, but I have a bet with my daughter that you are Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.

Death on the Nile (1978)
(SPOILERS) Peak movie Poirot, as the peerless Peter Ustinov takes over duties from Albert Finney, who variously was unavailable for Death on the Nile, didn’t want to repeat himself or didn’t fancy suffering through all that make up in the desert heat. Ustinov, like Rutherford, is never the professional Christie fan’s favourite incarnation, but he’s surely the most approachable and engaging. Because, well, he’s Peter Ustinov. And if some of his later appearances were of the budget-conscious, TV movie variety (or of the Michael Winner variety), here we get to luxuriate in a sumptuously cast, glossy extravaganza.

I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
(SPOILERS) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It’s not an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…