The Man in the White Suit

Is it fair to call Alec Guinness an underrated actor? I’m not saying he’s not an extremely well known or even highly praised actor, but it’s often struck me that far too few people know him outside of his Obi-Wan Kenobi. I have a feeling that if he were an American actor, he would have a reputation nearly equal to that of Marlon Brando. From a sheer technical acting perspective, he was arguably the most versatile actor of the 20th century. Like Olivier, Guinness had an amazing ability to just blend into any role he played but, unlike Olivier, Guinness was much more natural about it (less theatrical, more cinematic, in a respect). For those who know him outside of Star Wars, most of his fame likely rests on the films he made with David Lean (like Bridge on the River Kwai and Dr. Zhivago), but it’s truly his most prolific period from the late forties to the sixties that is so overlooked in his oeuvre.

The Man in the White Suit is one film that comes from this period. It stars Guinness as a brilliant scientist—a chemist—named Sidney Stratton who finds himself working menial jobs around textile mills. After he’s caught for running up expenses at one mill in secrecy, he begins work at another. What he’s so hard at work on is developing a revolutionary fiber that won’t stain and won’t fall apart. He eventually meets Daphne Birnley (Joan Greenwood), the daughter of Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) who owns one lab, and when Daphne becomes aware of what Sidney’s doing, she begs her father to hire him, and given the company’s heavy debts, he decides hiring Sidney would be his best bet. Eventually, Sidney is successful, but his joys quickly turn to trouble as both the businessmen and the workers realize that such an invention will likely put them out of work in no time.

If The Man in the White Suit sounds like an odd premise, it may be more surprising for me to say that it’s an even odder film. In a sense, I’ve never seen any film like it. Ostensibly, it’s a comedy, with Guinness essentially returning to the kind of dry, British slapstick that made him a success in films like The Lavender Hill Mob and, to a lesser extent, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Mackendrick and Guinness do their best to play up these comedic elements, especially as the film goes on and Sidney’s experiments start demolishing the lab (and a good chunk of the mill) where he’s performing them in. In that typically arid British humor, we can only laugh as Sidney stages the experiments as if he’s preparing for war (most extremely when he puts on a helmet and essentially digs himself a foxhole behind a wall). This isn’t even to mention the copious chases in the film, which have that wonderful sense of chaotic breathlessness and confusion to them.

But the truly unique thing about the film is its ambiguous perspective on the events and characters. It may be putting it too simply that there are no real good guys and bad guys here. In truth, the businessmen are, in typical fashion, not portrayed in a positive light. Alan Birnley is, at best, a selfish, arrogant buffoon, but the “big boss” is played by none other than Ernest Thesiger (one of the iconic horror actors) who is given a thoroughly menacing appearance. But the film doesn’t simply present a case of “greedy businessmen, bad, brilliant scientist, good”, as Sidney soon discovers the workers are against him as much as the businessmen. After working in the mill factories, especially forms a relationship with Bertha (Vida Hope), who becomes extremely upset upon hearing of Sidney’s discovery, realizing that such an invention would soon put her and the other workers out of business.

So part of the brilliance of the film is that it manages to unite the typical metonyms for capitalism (businessmen) and communism (the proletariat) in a common cause against the harmful progress of science. But where does that leave the audience? We can’t rightly root against Sidney—who certainly isn’t portrayed as a villain, but merely a man doing his job like everyone else—but we can’t rightly root for the damage that such an invention would cause. So the brilliant crux of the film is presented in the concept that scientific progress is only desirable in so far that it’s able to better the lives of, not everyone, but simply those who control it. That also leaves us wondering at the extent at which progress is suppressed in favor of maintaining the status quo, and such a question may ring louder today in an age where capitalist monstrosities like Big Oil would likely do everything possible to prevent the proliferation of vehicles that run on anything besides fossil fuels.

If the film is fascinating from a conceptual side, it’s much weaker from an emotional side. In fact, the film’s Achilles’ Heel is its weak characterizations that fail to add any real human element and interest to the story. Typically, such a film would center around the relationship of Sidney and Daphney, but the film focuses so little on them together that it instead becomes all about the project, the experiments, and the tumult caused in the wake of the success. Guinness and (Joan) Greenwood are in fine form here in their roles, and Guinness is especially suited to the straight-faced scientist who is driven to succeed, but they’re simply given too little to work with to enrich and deepen these essentially shallow characters. Of course, British cinema is often known for a certain cool detachment, but I would argue that the best (like in the films of Lean or Powell/Pressburger) know how to add a subtle warmth and added wit to that coolness.

Technically, the film is more impressive. The cinematography and lighting by Douglas Slocombe is consistent in its high quality, and he especially gets to show off in the night scenes, which has Sidney’s suit (made with his indestructible fiber) glowing luminously. Mackendrick also proves an extremely competent director, and with its 85-minute runtime there’s hardly any fat or flab. But the most outstanding technical achievements lie in the use of sound and music. In the former, particularly memorable is that bleep-blooping of the machine itself used in the experiments (I dare you to get it out of your head!). The original score by Benjamin Frankel is another treat, with its nervous, polyphonic themes, jagged rhythms, and potent melodies.

Ultimately, I can’t quite shake the feeling that The Man in the White Suit is a film that I admired much more than I loved or enjoyed. While the film is laudable on most every technical level it lacks any kind of humanistic hook to bring one into the story on an emotional level. It’s certainly acceptable for films to avoid sentimentalism, but to do so requires feeling that emotional void with something outstanding, and all of the positive elements in The Man With the White Suit don’t quite fulfill that void. Although I’ve gotten to the point where I can watch and enjoy Guinness in about anything (I think), it’s sad to see him strapped to a character that he can’t breathe more life into.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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