Sunday, 6 June 2021

Movie Review: The Man In The White Suit (1951)

A satirical comedy, The Man In The White Suit takes aim at industrial-scale inertia through the story of a potentially brilliant invention no one wants.

In Britain, Cambridge-educated chemist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is obsessed with creating an everlasting and stain-resistant fabric, but his unconventional research methods get him into trouble. After getting fired from the lab of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), he finds employment as a labourer at the textile factory owned by tycoon Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker). On the loading bays he befriends union activist Bertha (Vida Hope).

Sid finagles his way into the lab and resumes his research, and finds an ally in Birnley's daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). Alan is eventually convinced to back the explosive experimentation, and Sid perfects the formula for indestructible dirt-fighting cloth. But his discovery will disrupt the textile industry by curtailing sales and throwing workers off the job, and panic sets in among both capitalists and union leaders.

An Ealing Studios production, The Man In The White Suit takes a sparse premise and extends it into an acerbic commentary poking fun at both the money and labour wings of capitalism. The message of intransigence in the face of innovation is delivered with sharp and often exquisitely-timed humour, and Alec Guinness as a misfit inventor is suitably spiky. But director and co-writer Alexander Mackendrick also litters the story with too many interchangeable secondary characters in a sometimes desperate attempt to throw madcap quantity at the screen.

The build-up to Sid's invention is representative of both the film's strengths and choppiness. The young scientist hides in plain sight, rides a mean streak of persistence, and overcomes repeated terminations before his knowledge of modern lab equipment nets him another opportunity. But his attempts to get Birnley's attention by invading his house and the subsequent laboratory explosions are just overplayed, momentum seeping out to expose just how much work was required to stretch a sketch idea into an 85 minute movie.

The third act nails the message of an establishment fighting back with all its political might. The captains of industry and union activists scramble their resources, awakening to the risks of an invention that could upend all their jobs. But the humour and edginess suffer as Sid is sidelined, Mackendrick stuffing too many people into a few rooms and hoping for the best. Moments of slapstick and running-around-the-hallways cheapen the level of humour. 

But all is well that ends well. The resolution is a mix of pathos and confirmation the world of scaled-up commerce is as it should be, a place to maximize profit from established ideas while remaining willfully blind to upstarts carrying the blueprints of the future.



All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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