In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ealing virtuoso Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit finds itself on the receiving end of a restoration and re-release.
Mackendrick’s amusingly sardonic tale, based on his cousin Roger McDougall’s play, gives Alec Guinness a chance to shine as the stubborn genius, Sidney Stratton. Following a dismissal from his previous bout of employment, Sidney finds himself working in the research laboratory of a textile factory in a non-descript corner of the North. Stratton’s zealous obsession with bloody-minded progress leads to him inventing a revolutionary type of fabric that never gets dirty and is impossible to damage. Unfortunately for Stratton, his invention is met with hostility from both the factory owners and the unionised labour, who perceive the invention as a threat to repeat business and job security respectively.
As a resourceful and strident dissection of the state of (at the time) modern British institutions, The Man in the White Suit is ferocious. It’s a frequently angry film, and it has no qualms about taking a pretty fierce swipe at all its constituent factions; none of whom with which you can ever completely sympathise. The grasping mill owners are, aspiring but greedy, and singularly fail to see anything but the worst in the potential and brilliance of Stratton’s work, so concerned are they with filling their own coffers. While the militant factory workers also baulk at Stratton’s indestructible suit; they’ve fought hard enough for their tea break, they’ll be damned if they lose their jobs in the name of science.
Strangely enough, Stratton isn’t whiter than white himself. His pig-headed determination to see progress, almost for the sake of it, seems generous, but there’s an almost complete lack of consideration for the consequences. You’re left with the feeling that the film is perhaps looking to warn against the dangers accompanying modernisation post-war, but can’t quite work out at whom to lay the bulk of the blame. Perhaps we’re all as bad as each other.
It’s tempered by a playful, ironic sense of humour that sees Stratton’s early experiments going explosively wrong, to the bouncy accompanying noise of his tubes and pipes bubbling and whistling away. The desperate finale sees Stratton tearing through the dimly lit alleys of industrial Britain, clad in his infernal invention, like a man possessed.
Mackendrick’s peculiarly engrossing comedy feels like a bit of a mismatch at times, but it’s a combination of frustration, fear and wit which is neatly glued together by the gravitas of Guinness’s naively endearing man in his white suit.