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  Man in the White Suit, The None Of Your Business
Year: 1951
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Howard Marion-Crawford, Henry Mollison, Vida Hope, Patric Doonan, Duncan Lamont, Harold Goodwin, Colin Gordon, Joan Harben, Arthur Howard, Miles Malleson, Mandy Miller
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Science FictionBuy from Amazon
Rating:  9 (from 1 vote)
Review: Mr Birnley (Cecil Parker) is undertaking a tour of his textile mill today, but when he gets to the laboratory there's a puzzle awaiting everyone. No matter who they talk to, they cannot find anyone who can explain what the collection of tubes, vials, flasks and electronics is hidden away in this corner, and calling the other scientists over to investigate garners such responses as they thought it was someone else's research. Birnley's daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood) is there with him, and catches sight of a furtive chap who has noticed the fuss - could he know more than he's letting on?

Could be, because that man is Sidney Stratton, played by Alec Guinness in one of his first great performances of the nineteen-fifties, the decade which saw him become far and away one of the biggest British stars of his era. Watching him here, doing his typical disappearing into the role without recourse to any of that method acting now in vogue across the Atlantic, you could well see why he caught on, delivering a performance which was so self-contained yet so able to connect with audiences, the boffin who has no thought to the consequences of progress other than it's something that must be achieved whatever the cost - in fact, he just doesn't see the cost at all.

In another kind of science fiction movie, for that's what this was, a sci-fi comedy, Stratton would be some arrogant mad scientist forging ahead with some dangerous scheme and utterly villainous with it, yet while he is our hero here, from some angles that's exactly what he was. Sidney's great invention (accompanied by some classic sound effects in its production) is a material which can be woven into clothes which never get dirty and never wear out, which sounds like a great idea until you start to ponder the implications. This is where the satire enters into it, as the British disease, the class system, was well to the fore in the manner in which the plot played out, with both workers and bosses seeing this new creation as something which could put the whole structure of business way out of joint, perhaps irreparably.

It wasn't some dry lecture on business relations, however, as The Man in the White Suit emerged as one of the most deliciously ingenious of the Ealing comedies, supplying genuine laughter from the character interplay and a sense of thrills once the situation grows increasingly dire. To show how Sidney is neither one thing nor the other in his social strata, the script has him the object of near-unspoken desire of both Daphne (Greenwood is terrific) and one of the workers, Bertha (earthily appealing Vida Hope), as they both might be falling in love with him except circumstances and his own devotion to his work cancel out any romance which might have made him a little more human. It was details like that, with director Alexander Mackendrick contributing to the adaptation of Roger MacDougall's play, which offered an emotional resonance not often found in comedy, never mind science fiction.

Making this yet more fascinating was that as befitting Mackendrick's rather cynical take on humanity the concerns that the new invention will bring about industry's downfall is not blamed on overreaction by any side, nor of Stratton caught in the middle, but shared equally, and eventually everyone has debased themselves in their efforts to manhandle the brewing crisis into something more manageable. So essentially the bosses try to get Stratton to sign a contract which will ensure their absolute control, possibly never use it at all, and wind up keeping the genius prisoner to persuade him, resorting to violence, then even forcing Birnley (Parker is priceless) to prostitute his daughter in an attempt to get the stubborn Sidney to change his mind. The workers are determined to do the same - they imprison him too! - offering common ground with traditional rivals; if this sounds heavy, it is, but the lightness of touch employed conveys it with wonderful humour and clear-eyed intelligence, even if, darkly, no solutions are offered, because there are no universally beneficial ones. Music by Benjamin Frankel.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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