The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Dir. Alexander Mackendrick. Starring Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough

Brilliant and a touch erratic, retiring and obsessive, Sid Stratton (Guinness) raises a truly frightening question when he succeeds in making an eternal fabric. Indeed, it is scary enough that the movie does not dare to answer its own question, relying on a flighty and sudden quirk in Stratton’s science so that this comedy does not end with lynching or class war. The individual, working on a passion project, discovers a way to clothe every person on earth for good and all. The society, which requires that clothing wear out, or come in different colors and patterns, or be made of fine or coarse material, revolts. The owners of the mills and the mill workers shout at each other, nearly coming to blows in the office of the greatest textile baron of them all, Birnley (Parker). One of the mill owners stops the scrum. Capital and labor, he coos, are united here. We should work together to ensure that our common interest—capitalism—is met. Even the most socialistic members of works committee join him after this plea, for it’s frequently found that workers’ idealism is merely a front until they can bask in management’s more happily bankrolled pragmatism. Should society, the film wonders, honor the individual who can do a marvelous service to all humankind at the expense of the dominant economic system? Or should society subsidize the survival of capitalism by suppressing that which circumvents the profit motive? In the end, the movie scampers away, offending no one but losing much of its authority. Sid, cornered by a crowd, cannot perpetuate the escape he has been trying to make good on for the last few minutes. (The mob has even found its own Casca the poet, a baker in white who cannot fathom why he is being chased around.) They grab his suit – and it falls away. Stripped to his underclothes by the joyous mob, back in business all, he stands alone except for one kind person willing to offer him an overcoat. No one, in short, has to answer the question of individual against society.

(There’s a hole in the plot of this movie which is bigger than the fact that the onetime indestructible suit falls apart with only a few shots’ worth of warning beforehand, and that’s the fact that I’m not entirely sure that an indestructible clothing item would destroy the textile market. Just about everyone but Birnley assumes that it will, once they think about it for thirty seconds, though I still think that’s a little easy. For one thing, there’s the question of whether or not everyone would want to wear luminous white clothing all the time. Nor does the movie consider comfort or style or, curiously, how much they could charge for such an item of indestructible clothing. The movie doesn’t need to work this particular issue out, but it eats at me a little as a viewer.)

All the same, The Man in the White Suit treads lightly towards the side of labor. In a last-ditch effort to convince Stratton to put away his designs on publication, the capitalists offer Birnley’s comely daughter £2,000 to seduce the scientist. Why not 5,000? she says archly, and the sum is agreed to immediately. They know a bargain when they hear one. Too, the unionists have a few women on their side. The only woman the mill owners have in their sights is the one they intend to whore out. The movie also recognizes that even though the bosses have more money to lose than the workers, the workers are the ones who will suffer. Stratton is even confronted by his landlady in one moment where he’s being chased around by a few dozen people. Couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you? she says. Your fabric will take away the little money I bring in doing laundry. The landlady, grizzled old woman that she is, is the only one whose plea makes a dent in the facade of its previously unmoved hero, who is quite literally glowing at that moment because of the special white suit he’s wearing.

Stratton is, depending on your opinion of using corporate money to do unauthorized research at a place where you’re barely employed, more or less blameless in the movie, which makes the choices proffered particularly sad. Stratton does not seem to realize that he might be blowing an enormous hole in the existing economic system in his country by inventing this fabric; he is all laboratory, no business, and he seems not to recognize either the positive or the negative impact that sales would have. The word that troubles him most is “suppression,” which rankles the scientist’s penchant for intellectual freedom. If there is a symbol for him in the movie, it’s the mysterious tooting chemistry set that shows up in increasingly larger variants; no one seems to have the faintest idea how it works, but until it starts exploding it seems perfectly cheerful. It’s a role which suits Guinness neatly. The diction fits the Cambridge first, and the wispy quality of his body fits the traditional chemist. It matters, too, that our hero is only vaguely romantic, or, indeed, vaguely anything. Guinness brings the substance to Stratton not through passion or vehemence but through consistency, through a general quiet that endures throughout kisses and impromptu sideboard rides. His most ardent display of the film comes after he has been thrown from a moving car driven by Daphne, but even that has to do with a speedy and impassioned chemistry lecture which charms her with its authenticity.

It takes a little white before the film grows into all of its characters, which sounds like a kiss of death for a movie that’s less than ninety minutes long but in truth makes a great deal of sense. So much of the early going belongs to Stratton and his accidentally musical experiment that people introduced at the outset give us ways to see them change. Birnley, who tours the textile mill belonging to his would-be son-in-law, Michael (Gough), makes the first impression of an old-school, hard-nosed businessman. Stratton, and the thunderous effect he has on the market, reduce him to a timid mess. Michael, who plays himself up as a friendly chap with some modest professional ambition, goes along with the plan to send his girlfriend into Stratton’s arms as bait. By leaving out the redoubtable Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger) until he is called in to fix the problem of Sid Stratton, we don’t have a chance to see him as anything except a barely ambulatory angel of death. And Daphne (Greenwood) is a mostly aimless young woman loyal to her boyfriend and her father before she sees in Stratton the seeds of some greatness, or at least of something unique and fine. Greenwood—Looks Like Your Mother, Sounds Like Your Father—remains dignified no matter the situation. Excepting Stratton and Bertha (Vida Hope), no one does a better job of keeping her cool and maintaining a sense of proportion. Even Bertha, who is a generous person at heart, does not understand the far-flung possibilities of the clothing that Stratton has invented. Daphne, who makes herself into something of a dab hand at chemistry once she imbibes some Encyclopedia Britannica, recognizes the genius in Sid’s work at the molecular level as opposed to the product level. The movie is not necessarily sanguine about her chances with Sid romantically, given the ending, but she is legitimately supportive of him when he is, for example, trapped in her bedroom. She is at once essential to the picture and shortchanged by it. For all of her grace, she is never around for the movie’s most important scenes; she always stays trapped one scene behind.

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