Reason Enough for Scientists Not to Leave Things Alone!

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Published on November 14th, 2012 | by John Oursler


“The Man in the White Suit” runs from Friday, November 16 to Thursday, November 22 at Film Forum.

Running time: 85 minutes; Not rated.

It takes a master of tonality to successfully bring a satirical comedy to life. Given the wrong ingredients, the former element can fall short of its intended purpose to chide its target. If the satirical purpose comes on too strong there may be a tendency for the film to become mean spirited rather than instructive. Though British film in the early 1950s may not raise your eyebrows as a standard-bearer of this sub-genre, a viewing of Alexander Mackendrick’s  1951 classic “The Man in the White Suit” may just change your mind.

“The Man in the White Suit” tells the story of industrious young scientist Sidney Stratton, played by Alec Guinness. Moving from factory to warehouse, Stratton takes any opportunity he can to engineer a breakthrough in chemistry and textile manufacturing. Endeavoring to create a long-chain molecule that can carry an electro-static type charge, thereby rendering textiles soil-proof, Stratton ingeniously plants himself in jobs where he can coyly carry out his experiments. We first meet him by chance, and in the shadows, as we experience one of his grand chemistry sets through both visual and audible senses: Mackendrick perfectly frames the set, giving it the visual importance it deserves, while the audience hears the results of the chemical reactions taking place through a series of bloops and beeps that would find themselves perfectly at home as the rhythm track to a Talking Heads song. Soon fired from this gig, Stratton finds himself a home at Birnley Manufacturing, where his breakthrough first occurs. Comedy and satire soon follow.

Any good comedy from this era necessitates a certain romantic element (George Cukor’s “Adam’s Rib” comes to mind), and this film cleverly incorporates the trope to satiate its tonal appetite. Birnley’s daughter Daphne is an eligible young lady with a mind for business. When Daphne’s father rebuffs her suitor Michael (Michael Gough) in his business venture, she takes it upon herself to help Stratton achieve success by forcing her father to witness Stratton’s breakthrough for himself. In Stratton’s breakthrough Birnely thinks he’s found the technological advancement of a generation for his industry: if he can produce garments and products that repel liquid and other stains, he has effectively rendered obsolete any marketplace competition for similar items. Although the comedic elements are peppered throughout, they remain most viable in the film’s first half when Stratton courts personal reward in the forms of both scientific and romantic discovery.

Satiric commentary starts nudging its way in slowly as the action builds. Birnley’s superiors, all stodgy old white men, realize that the monopoly of the technological advancement may not be as appealing as it first seems: the breakthrough would actually cripple the industry by limiting its output, and thus long-term profitability, as well as threaten the livelihood of manual laborers, because not only is the fabric stain-proof but it’s also seemingly indestructible! Theoretically, once someone had the product he or she would have no need for more products. Despite hefty bribes from Birnley and his superiors (£250,000 in 1951!), Stratton refuses to sign an exclusivity contract granting the firm rights to own and suppress his scientific formulas. Knowing that the product would serve a public good by lowering cost, he sticks to his principles, refusing all offers. Hereafter a war on “progress for progress’s sake” is waged against Stratton as the labor force and the industrialists form an unlikely alliance to stop Stratton and Daphne from publicizing their breakthrough. Mackendrick coyly draws the industrial capitalists as backhanded manipulators as they convince the laborers that their fight is one and the same. Daphne and Stratton becomes a symbol of democratic freedom while the impending mob become caricatures of capitalist greed.

When Stratton is cornered by the crowd, his suit spontaneously starts falling apart. He stands surrounded as his white suit has now virtually disappeared, leaving him in nothing but boxers and a dress shirt. It seems as though the bad guys may have gotten their way after all. The film’s final scene takes a voiceover from Birnley as we watch Stratton perplexingly look at his notebook. “We have seen the last of Sidney Stratton! Or at least I hope we have,” says Birnely. Meanwhile, we see Stratton look up in excitement as he proclaims, “I see!” and runs off into the horizon, presumably to finish what he started.

Rialto’s restoration of this classic Ealing film is nothing short of pristine, as the black and white perfectly capture the dual natures of both people and places. The comedic elements Mackendrick incorporates make the film a light enough experience that the satiric commentary goes down smooth as silk. Guinness is a delight as he easily embodies the spirit of young idealist and populist thinker. Do yourself a favor and take ninety minutes out of your week so that you can see how crisply they used to do things.

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About the Author

is a freelance film critic based in NYC. He has a master's degree in nonprofit management, which he hopes will lead to a career in programming or fundraising at a film festival.

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