The Man in the White Suit (Alexander Mackendrick / United Kingdom, 1951):

The conduct of progress, down the drain or up in flames, so it goes in the Ealing version of The Philosopher's Stone. The artist (Alec Guinness) is a chemist masquerading as a laborer, all he wants is his own "corner of the bench" for his rhythmically gurgling beakers and test tubes. Out of explosions emerges the great creation, the ideal fabric perpetually immaculate (dirt runs off of it like liquid mercury) and therefore a threat to "the delicate balance of trade. From top to bottom a system of nincompoops, the mill owner (Cecil Parker) and the head proletarian (Vida Hope) join forces to chase idealism down the alley. "Flotsam floating on the flood tide of profits. There's capitalism for you." Textile industries stand for British cinema in this drolly ferocious view of stagnation, sometimes it takes a Yank like Alexander Mackendrick to laud the mad inspiration beneath subdued veneers (cp. Losey's Finger of Guilt). Cobblestone streets and smokestacks and geometric laboratory décor situate the fable between Industrial Revolution and Atomic Age, the rich vein of Kafkaesque comedy provides Ernest Thesiger as the corporate death's head, wheezing as company limousines glide like hearses across the screen. ("Une science si fantastique," declares Godard's Nosferatu in Alphaville.) Blandly genteel yet obsessed down to his toes, Guinness plays knight until the phosphorescent armor gets literally picked apart by the would-be lynch mob, a high-angled shot has the thwarted genius in his briefs. Back to the drawing board... If there's a sliver of hope for Mackendrick, it lies with the daughter of the house (Joan Greenwood) who sees the value of invention yet is wised-up enough to play the system from within. Listening to the scientist enthuse about carbohydrates, she grins sly and wide: "It's just the suit. It looks like it's wearing you." I'm All Right Jack picks up the analysis, Gilliam pays close attention to the cavernous offices. Cinematography by Douglas Slocombe. With Michael Gough, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Patric Doonan, and Miles Malleson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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