Some films have an air of effortless style which others can only dream about. The Man in the White Suit (1951), directed by Alexander Mackendrick and produced by the revered Michael Balcon for Ealing Studios, is one such film. Starring company regulars Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood, and lent a sinister chill by the appearance of horror legends Michael Gough and Ernest Thesiger, this timeless classic requires the viewer to do nothing more than sit back and let its nostalgic magic sweep over them.
Textile scientist Sidney Stratton (Guinness) has invented a fabric which never gets dirty or wears out. The only difficulty is, since the cloth is repellent to any kind of dye, it remains brilliantly white. Naïvely perhaps Sidney prepares, with the help of his boss’s daughter Daphne (Greenwood), to reveal his discovery to the world, believing it will be of enormous benefit to mankind. He did not count however on the interference of both the unions and manufacturers who, alarmed at the possibility that this new ‘everlasting’ cloth will ultimately make them and their products redundant, will do anything they can to stop him.
Though he was born and died in America Alexander Mackendrick was quintessentially British, at least in the films he made for Ealing. His productions for them, including his three most famous, Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (1955), were, and still are, the celluloid embodiment of a Britain long since forgotten. His work for the studio was unique for another reason as well in that, unlike many of their films which were set in and around London, those by Mackendrick all took place well away from the confines of the capital and the leafy environs of the home counties.
The Man in the White Suit was a case in point. Set within a Manchester mill, the film effectively evokes the grimy and often hard conditions much of the British population experienced during the early postwar years. It emphasises the glaring differences between the working and middle classes as seen through the basic conditions of Sidney’s laboratory at the mill (given an air of mad scientist’s lair by Director of Photography Douglas Slocombe and Art Director Jim Morahan), which is thrown into stark relief when juxtaposed with the bohemian splendour of the room in which Daphne closets herself away Rapunzel-like in her father’s house on a hill overlooking the family business.
That in the end both the workers and the management are after the same ends simply highlights a fact that is frequently true for many people, though you’d be unlikely to get them to admit it.
The cleverest aspect of the film though, is the way Sidney stands out visually for most of the second half in his ‘white suit’, drawing attention to what he sees as his individuality, fitting in with neither his working class colleagues or the insidious mill owners who attempt to fool him into signing over the rights to his amazing textile invention. That the film ends on an ambiguous note merely adds to Sidney’s mysterious appeal and, though he is fundamentally as self-centred and singleminded as the people he believes are out to ruin him, the fact that his driving force is clearly not greed or self-advancement, somehow makes him a forgivable anti-hero in the eyes of the viewer.
The Man in the White Suit is one of those magical films which works on many levels. No matter how often you watch it there is always some point which stands out afresh, much like the white suit at the centre of its story and, like many of the films which fall within the cannon of ‘Ealing Comedies‘, its gentle humour reminds us of a time when the line between right and wrong, both ethically and morally, was often clearer than it seems today.
The Man In The White Suit was released in a specially restored edition by StudioCanal on the 19th November, 2012, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Alexander Mackendrick’s birth. The DVD and Blu-ray discs come with a host of extras including a brand new featurette, ‘Revisiting The Man in the White Suit’, behind the scenes stills gallery, restoration comparison, subtitles and original trailer.
Cleaver Patterson is a film critic and writer based in London.