Wednesday 16 May 2007

The Man in the White Suit (1951) Alexander Mackendrick

Very much an Ealing Studios product, their name appears after the director's at the beginning and at the very end of the end credits. After that namecheck we find ourselves at Corland Mills, where Alec Guinness is causing havoc even before we know who he's playing, running a cart inadvertently into the owner of the mill and his girlfriend, whose father owns the competition. He's a scientist, one who works on his own with some sort of melodic sounding apparatus.

Very subtly, it becomes obvious that he's been researching using guerilla tactics, nobody has a clue about anything that he's doing and they're all eager to blame someone else and shift the responsibility for doing anything about it. Guinness merely stands about observing but not saying a word, keeping as far away from any of their activity as possible. It's obvious that he's something special but we don't know what, because next thing we know he's out on his ear. All we find out is that he's a fish out of water wherever he goes. The left wing instinctively believes that he's a victim of the system, before stopping for tea. After all, they had to fight for it. The technical bods don't know how their expensive equipment works, so sees him as the expert they really need. The people in charge don't have a clue who he is, what he does or where he came from.

Guinness is Stratton and Stratton is like a ghost, flitting around unnoticed or misunderstood by everyone and that's precisely how he likes it. It frees him up to do his thing with polymerising the amino acid residue, or whatever it is in technical jargon. The only person who pays any attention is Daphne Birnley, the daughter of the owner of , Birnley's, the second mill we see him working for. What he really is is an idealist and so is she. He discovers a means of manufacturing a fabric that doesn't wrinkle or stain and effectively lasts forever.

Guinness is wonderful as the young idealist and Joan Greenwood, who also worked with him in Kind Hearts and Coronets, another great Ealing comedy. I firmly believe that she has the greatest, most seductive voice in film history, and this film doesn't just benefit from that but also the most awesome wheeze of a laugh ever, courtesy of an old and shrivelled Ernest Thesiger, sixteen years after his last instantly memorable characterisation, Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.

Thesiger is Sir John Kierlaw, leader of half of the campaign to stop Stratton. This campaign is what else beyond Guinness's genius, Greenwood's voice and Thesiger's laugh makes this film, because it's about the only time you'll ever see a teaming up of everyone against one man. It's a bizarre unity between the industrial power elite, who want to stop Stratton to protect their infrastructure and their income, and the unions, who want to stop him to protect their job. How this is portrayed is spot on and it's not surprising that this is one of the British Film Institute's Top 100 British Films. It's the only one of the great four Ealing comedies that starred Alec Guinness that I'd never managed to see, but I'm very glad to finally catch up with it. It's as great as everyone said it was.

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