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The Man in the White Suit

The Man in the White Suit (1951) is, hands down, the best science fiction movie Alec Guinness ever starred in. While on the surface it's a comic fable with a sense of humor as dry as a cracker, the movie possesses a sharp edge that rises like a shark fin above the natty British drollery. Like I'm All Right Jack, here is a damning satire of British conservatism, industrial capitalists, and trade unions that strives to be both funny and dour, and succeeds at both — an achievement postwar Brits so excelled at. And if we apply the Asimovian definition of science fiction as a tale that unveils human passions and foibles via a technological advance, then this is both pure science fiction and one of the slyest of London's Ealing Studios comedies.

The Man in the White Suit is a tea-and-biscuits take on the Prometheus myth. The setting is transferred to the smokestacked landscape of industrial Manchester, and naive boffin Sidney Stratton is the bringer of wonders who must pay a price for his unrepentant actions. At its center is a lovely performance from Guinness as the tweedy Stratton, an impassioned obsessive whose invention could provide incalculable benefits to all humanity, therefore he and it must be stopped at all costs. He takes menial jobs in textile mills so that he can sneak time in their labs to work on his secret experiment — a bubbling, oomp-pahing contraption of mysterious purpose. Although a brilliant Cambridge honors grad, Stratton is blinkered by his single-mindedness, and the forged expenses incurred by his experiments repeatedly get him sacked, mill after mill. But at last he scams his way into the laboratory of his dreams, and after a series of literally explosive experiments, his "Eureka!" moment arrives with the discovery of a revolutionary new fiber that is indestructible and repels dirt and stains.

The factory owner (Cecil Parker) sees the miracle fabric as the ultimate boon for his company, and in short order a tailor whips up a demonstration suit for Stratton. The resulting luminous white trousers and jacket not only glow even in the dingy daylight, they give Stratton the air of an ultramodern White Knight tilting at one mission in life: to free mankind from washtime drudgery and the indignities of tattered clothing. Unfortunately, the monopolistic textile industry leaders, led by mummified tycoon Ernest Thesiger, see only a threat to their well-fed status quo. Their attempts to suppress Stratton's discovery include money, deception, incarceration, and even sex. They send his boss' sexy daughter, yummy plummy-voiced Joan Greenwood, to seduce him, but her sympathies turn more toward Stratton's innocent purity of purpose than to the cold self-preservation of papa or her would-be suitor, Michael Gough.

On the other side of the capitalist coin, the local textile workers union see only an end to their livelihoods. Their point of view is poignantly brought home by Stratton's frail old landlady, who makes ends meet with laundry services and who asks her on-the-lam tenant what will happen to her when there's no more laundry to be done. In the most unified of Luddite Rebellions, both Capital and Labour join forces and, like Frankenstein's villagers with torches, set out into the streets to subdue Stratton and prevent the publication of his discovery.

The film ends on a stark note — Stratton standing symbolically naked before the desperate mob — then with a somber yet uplifting coda: Stratton, single-minded as ever, exits the picture walking away on a lonely street, his head held high, looking for all the world like Chaplin's Little Tramp on the road toward an ambiguously hopeful future.

Chaplin isn't the only classic comedy icon that comes to mind through The Man in the White Suit. With his straight-faced determination and the film's precision-tuned physical humor, Guinness' Sidney Stratton could be one of Buster Keaton's resolute can-do amateurs from the silent days. American-born director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers) oversaw it all with laudable restraint. In a dozen ways this Oscar-nominated screenplay could have become a diatribe, its "message" either shrill or mean-spirited, but Mackendrick avoided every pitfall. He juggled tension or tenderness with humor that's dry and funny without being stuffy. Although the characters are quickly drawn, they're also touching or sympathetic without caricature, condescension, or sentimentality.

The Man in the White Suit sure has aged well. No doubt many modern viewers can point to ways in which its concerns and sensibilities are even more "true" over a half-century later. Its acerbic and observant stabs at industry and the darker side of self-protecting capitalism remain clothesline fresh today. In the end, the indestructible suit's representation of Progress and "the welfare of the community" may be no match against the panicky vested interests of the powerholders and the everyday blokes who simply want to keep their jobs. Nonetheless, what perseveres even in the face of failure is the dignified, forward-looking spirit of discovery and enterprise personified by Sidney Stratton, a fabric impervious to the narrow interests of both Left and Right.

Intelligent, funny, splendidly acted and directed, this is one of the most perfect comedies — and science fiction tales, from the same year as The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing, and When Worlds Collide — to fill our screens.

*          *          *

Anchor Bay's DVD release of The Man in the White Suit, part of the Alec Guinness Collection, honors both Guinness and the Ealing comedies from the '40s and '50s. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe's work is preserved in a print that is a thing of beauty — it's spotless, with a black-and-white image that's as balanced and well preserved as one could ask for. Blacks are true black, and the pristine White Suit radiates with the chastity of an angelic raiment. The transfer is in the original full-frame, while the monaural audio (DD 2.0) is so clear and strong that it could be a brand new track. It's an exquisite disc topped off with the original theatrical trailer and a Guinness bio comprised of three dozen click-through screen pages. Enclosed in an insert is an authoritative two-page essay on Ealing Studios and The Man in the White Suit. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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