The Man in the White Suit, 1951.
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
Starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger and Howard Marion-Crawford.
A brilliant young chemist invents a fabric resistant to wear and tear, only for him to fall foul of the trade unions and mill owners who attempt to suppress his invention.
Try to imagine an unbreakable, unsoilable fabric. It never wears out. It never gets dirty. Tailors have to set about it with a blowtorch to cut a suit. Revolutionary, yes? Probably too revolutionary for economies that depend on textile industry. You’d only ever need to make one batch. Everyone would be out of business; there’d be redundancies from factory worker all the way up to senior management.
Now try to imagine the sort of mind that could invent this fabric. Now try again, because it’s probably nothing like the bashful, secretive, strangely charming Sidney Stratton. But if only Sidney Stratton could invent the ever-lasting suit, then only Alec Guinness could truly bring him to life, turning this nervous, indignant scientist into a lovable outcast. Oddly for a protagonist who cares so little for the consequences of his actions, we find we deeply care for him.
That’s all still to come, though. To begin with, we haven’t the faintest idea what Sidney is up to in his dark little corner of the laboratory at Corland Mills, his experiment tooting and plooting and bubbling away, confounding anyone to guess at its true purpose. Only Daphne Birnley (Joan Greenwood), daughter to one mill owner (Cecil Parker) and engaged to another (Michael Gough) even bothers to notice Sidney exists.
After several false starts at mills all over the country, Sidney finally perfects his formula at Birnley’s, working as an unpaid researcher so his name cannot appear on the books. Only Daphne, who had spotted him working at Corland’s previously, tumbles to his ruse. Sidney only just stops her from spilling a great many beans to her father, explaining the unprecendented significance of his work to her.
There’s something about the way director Alexander Mackendrick lingers on Daphne’s softened expression. Sidney is bumbling on about long chain molecules, but we see something else. We see, as she does, this weirdly wonderful little man for the first time, coming to life as he holds forth on the things that really matter to him. It’s to Joan Greenwood’s immense credit that we read every hint of fascination and wonder and affection for this man in those feline features of hers.
She and Guinness give some of their very best performances, skewing very subtle, far beyond most of their comedy contemporaries’ abilities. For all Joan Greenwood’s sultry looks and seductive purrs, she elevates Daphne Birnley above the typical functionality of a mere love interest role. Her own quirks and eccentricities offer new angles and alternatives to the usual hanging-on-the-hero’s-sleeve routine. Her character may not be a world-class chemist like Sidney, but she immediately dives into the nearest encyclopaedia in an attempt to educate herself about the possibilities of his discovery.
As this discovery gains momentum, certain vested interests start to take notice. Textile multi-millionaire/warmed up corpse Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger) appears with a warning to get a hold on Sidney and his invention, before it puts them all out of business. Similarly, the mill’s Works Committee cry havoc at the prospect of ever-lasting unemployment. For once, Capital and Labour are in agreement: Sidney Stratton must be stopped.
With the world against him, it’s easy to root for the underdog here and cheer Sidney on as he runs through the dark cobbled streets, shining in his luminescent suit for all his pursuers to see. Yes, it’s that classic Ealing trope, the all-cast chase on foot. And why not? It’s a marvellously visual device, with dozens upon dozens of angry people in black chasing a lone man in white. Ultimately, we’re brought crashing back down to Earth with the reality of that unsoilable white suit, when Sidney begs his landlady to hide him and she turns on him:
“Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?”
The Man in the White Suit is classic Mackendrick, avoiding Ealing’s usual rosy-cheeked portrayal of British life and getting down to the hilarious facts of life. Who else could offer a tycoon laughing like a leaky gas pipe, scheduled office explosions, or even a roomful of men too embarrassed to ask a woman to seduce their prisoner? This isn’t your average movie-with-a-message. This isn’t your average anything. Go on. Try it on for size.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.