Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Man in the White Suit

Whether any connection with the Festival's Martin Bell event was intended, this fashion-themed screening at Inspace was very welcome.

Alec Guiness is the title character, a chemist by the name of Sidney Stratton whose experiments with long chain polymers result in the development of a fabric which is incredibly strong – notably the pattern for his suit has to be cut with a oxy-acetylene torch – and repels dirt and stains.

Naively Streeter expects to be lauded as a genius and his fabric to sweep the world. He fails to reckon, of course, with the fact that once you have one or two such suits you will never actually need any more. Accordingly both the mill owners and their workers seek to suppress Streeter’s discovery before it becomes public and threatens their way of life.

Crucially director Alexander Mackendrick avoids taking sides and instead takes pot-shots at capital, labour and the ideal of the detached, disinsterested scientist alike.

It’s the last aspect that also makes the film rather unconventional in its avoidance of heroism and romance. While there is the woman who is interested in Stratton he never returns her interest, nor sees her as a viable substitute to his scientific goals.

Mackendrick takes a no-nonsense approach to his direction, leaving it the writing, Guinness and a brilliant supporting cast including the likes of Joan Greenwood – the two having also made a memorable double-act in that other Ealing classic, Kind Hearts and Coronets – Ernest Thesigner and Michael Gough scope to carry the film.

The director does however make the sound an unusually important part of the production through the amusingly musical nature of Guinness’s experimental apparatus.

If The Man in the White Suit has a flaw when viewed retrospectively it is that its too much the product of the post-war austerity period to foresee the possibility of a consumerist future in which advertising could encourage a desire for ever more everlasting suits, whether we needed them or not.

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