Man in the White Suit, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/10/09 22:21:39

"A comedy that's still ahead of its time."
5 stars (Awesome)

It's possible to miss what a wonderful film "The Man in the White Suit" is because it jumps between so many different things, and doesn't necessarily finish any of them. It is romantic here, political here, and the light science fiction of a "Twilight Zone" episode here. It is funny throughout, to be sure, but that comedy goes from quiet farce to cartoonish bombast to sharp satire. It's never unsatisfying, as it turns out, a perfectly balanced comedy.

When we first meet Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), he (despite having been at Cambridge) is a janitor in the textile factor of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), who is trying to get more established manufacturer Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) to invest - and romancing his daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It's Daphne who spots the odd apparatus that Sidney has set up in the corner of the R&D department, and the discovery that he has been using company funds to purchase heavy hydrogen gets him fired. He soon finds a job as a laborer in the Birnley factory, where he discovers a synthetic fiber that doesn't get dirty and doesn't rip. Birnley initially sees pound signs, but soon both his competitors and the unions are up in arms about the implications of an indestructible fabric.

I don't think I've seen The Man in the White Suit on many lists of great science fiction films, which is a shame. No, it doesn't necessarily feel like one, or use many of the trappings other than a number of scenes in laboratories, but it's more prescient and insightful than many of its peers. It's the rare example of a film that seems to have actually listened to its science adviser; the technobabble Sidney spews actually sounds pretty reasonable almost sixty years later - the long-chain molecules he describes aren't so different from the carbon nanotubes much of today's materials research focuses on - and the screenplay anticipates nit-pickers' questions. More important is how it focuses on the immediate reaction to such an innovation - specifically, how items which never need replacing will throw industries into panic from top to bottom.

Granted, few people who aren't me are going to give all that much thought to how an Ealing Comedy works as science fiction as opposed to as a comedy. Happily, it's excellent on that count, too - director Alexander Mackendrick and his co-writers (including Roger MacDougall, who wrote the original play) start slow, with chuckles coming from Sidney's attempts to do his experiments on the sly, even though his apparatus pumps out a distinctive (and catchy!) beat. Lots of comedy is mined from the tendencies of Sidney's early formulations to blow up, and Guinness does a fine job both running around in chase scenes and playing something of a wide-eyed innocent, though not a stereotypical absent-minded scientist.

There's plenty of other amusing folks in the cast. Michael Gough is mainly a straight man as Corland, but Ernest Thesiger makes a late entrance and wins just about every scene he's in as Sir John Kierlaw, the hilariously old and infirm but still fiery leader of the fabric-makers' coalition. Cecil Parker sells Birnley perfectly, kind of stuffy but also kind of in over his head, led by his greed but not defined by it. Henry Mollison makes every scene he's in as Sidney's assistant funnier, and Vida Hope is hilariously strident as the union member who befriends Stratton.

At first, I wasn't terribly impressed with Joan Greenwood as Daphne - she's got kind of a weird voice and initially just seems like the obligatory girl. They do interesting things with her character, though, and I don't just say that because it's a pretty girl who suddenly finds herself interested in science. The arc of the character is interesting, because it's probably more complete than Sidney's, but since the movie is not actually about her, done in the background. She gets a few very nice, understated scenes in the third act, and I found myself liking and appreciating that Daphne's growth amounts to more than switching one boyfriend for another.

And that's marvelous. "The Man in the White Suit" has belly-laughs aplenty, and could have just done the usual thing around them. Instead, it's just a little smarter than it has to be, and rewards even the picky audience members.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.