Yesterday evening, after much consideration, I decided to pluck a DVD from my collection which had thus far been unwatched. I settled in the end on the 1951 Ealing Studios movie The Man In The White Suit starring Alec Guinness (he of Obi-Wan Kenobi fame). Focused on Guinness’ never-say-die inventor Sidney Stratton, the plot follows his attempts (and eventual success) in creating a brand new fabric that never gets dirty and never wears out.
After spells at several textile mills in what is notionally ‘The North’ (although some of the accents could be from anywhere), Stratton strikes gold, or rather, white, at Birnley’s plant owned by Cecil Parker’s stern Alan Birnley. After finding success, the first to learn of Stratton’s discover is Birnley’s alluring daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), and a quasi-romantic subplot is born. However, when industry tycoons realize that it’ll put them all out of business, they try and track Sidney down to stop word getting out.
It’s a simple idea of a small man battling against the odds, but Guinness’ Stratton is memorable for his sheer determination and morality: unfased by the financial gains he could make by selling his product, he wants to give his new fabric to the world, regardless of what the textile moguls want. Constantly pursued either by his personal failures or the mills’ workers, Guinness is brilliant in the lead role, garnering our sympathies as he is trapped, chased and hounded by an entire town, all in the name of progress. Greenwood, as daughter Daphne, is feisty and beautiful in equal parts, and Cecil Gordon’s Birnley is a wonderful creation full of hope before the crushing realizations of what this fabric means to business come crashing home. But it’s Guinness’ show, and he handles the lead role with deftness and grace: his Sidney is an instantly memorable struggler fighting his corner.
The direction is nicely handled as well, as Alexander Mackendrick behind the lens uses angular shots to document chase sequences (reminiscent of those in Carol Reed’s excellent The Third Man), and makes Stratton’s titular suit not just white, but positively luminescent. Shining out like a beacon, the suit unfortunately later makes Stratton easy to track for his pursuers, as his own creation ironically hinders any possible escape.
At just 82 minutes, this is one of the shortest films I’ve ever seen, but it hums along nicely thanks to the aforementioned snappy direction and a fantastic turn from Guinness, who was already an Ealing staple by this stage. The plot’s lack of originality is somewhat overcome by its clever realization, but in the end, this is a movie which just like Guinness’ Stratton himself, runs past too quickly to touch, and leaves you feeling as if you’ve been briskly run over by something charming and witty. A very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half, but not a classic by any means.
7/10 – Ealing Studio fans will eat it up, others may feel slightly bewildered at its pace, but all in all a fun movie to watch with a beautiful twist to close proceedings. Good stuff from a studio which was churning out classics at the time.