Alec Guinness and Joan Greenwood star in darkly comic fable The Man in the White Suit about a scientist who invents a dirt-repelling indestructible fibre, to the consternation of self-serving capitalists, unionists – and washerwomen everywhere.
“They were always trying to get me killed,” Alec Guinness once wrote of The Man In the White Suit’s technicians. “They thought actors got in the way of things.” He went on to describe how he’d been given a wire rope to climb down and, assured it was safe, narrowly avoided serious injury when it suddenly snapped mid-descent.
“People get in the way of things” might be a maxim tailor-made for White Suit inventor Sidney Stratton (fittingly played blank slate-fashion by Alec Guinness) in Alexander Mackendrick’s definitive Ealing film of 1951. Certainly, he cares only about his work, its realisation – and sod the consequences. And similarly, with the exception of a couple of peripheral characters, there’s almost nobody to root for in this chilly satire on capital and labour.
Told in flashback, the film concerns Stratton’s invention of a dirt-resistant, everlasting fibre (fashioned into the white suit of the title), and subsequent attempts by the clothing industry and its unions to suppress it. While the industry fears the bottom will drop out of the market, the shop floor stewards worry about finding themselves out of a job. Abduction and bribery attempts follow, with both money and an industry chief’s daughter on offer (Daphne, the delectable, 4-packs-a-day-voiced Joan Greenwood), to the tragi-comic end. “What’s to become of my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?” bemoans Stratton’s landlady near the close. A notion Stratton hadn’t even considered – and has disregarded again by the movie’s ambiguous coda. Bleak and brilliant.
Inventor Sidney Stratton was originally a supporting character in Roger MacDougall’s source play, until director Alexander Mackendrick elevated him to centre stage for the movie, making “a new story entirely”.
The suit… it looks as if it’s wearing you! – Daphne (Joan Greenwood)
Alec Guinness as Sidney Stratton
Joan Greenwood as Daphne Birnley
Cecil Parker as Alan Birnley
Michael Gough as Michael Corland
Ernest Thesiger as Sir John Kierlaw
Vida Hope as Bertha
Howard Marion-Crawford as Cranford
Miles Malleson as The Tailor
Henry Mollison as Hoskins
Patric Doonan as Frank
Duncan Lamont as Harry
Camera Douglas Slocombe
Production Michael Balcon
Costume & Make-Up Anthony Mendleson
Writing John Dighton
Writing Alexander Mackendrick
Directing Alexander Mackendrick
Editing Bernard Gribble
Costume & Make-Up Harry Frampton
Sound Ernest Irving
GB / Ealing Studios / 85 minutes / Released 1951-08-07