The Man in the White Suit Review

Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit suggests there's perhaps a way to make a product too good - to the extent such change could have wide-ranging and somewhat catastrophic consequences. A capitalistic society thrives far more on incremental improvements rather than sudden brushes with perfection. In the film, Alec Guinness plays a scientist who dreams of creating an everlasting, stain-resistant fabric. His innovation proves extraordinary, but it triggers understandable fear in the garment industry. If such a fabric was on the market, they quickly realize, people would buy their products far less often and sales (and jobs) would dry up considerably. Exceptionalism can have its costs.

One of the remarkable things about Mackendrick's film is that it's a comedy. The aggressive laughs might not be frequent but there's nonetheless a very intelligent and layered sense of humor here. Coming from Ealing, this is hardly a surprise but the movie actually opts less for that studio's usual brand of broader comedy and instead thrives on its subtlety. It's still unmistakably British, though maybe in a different way than, for example, Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Lavender Hill Mob or The Ladykillers. In contrast to those sorts of films, here we get Alec Guinness in a blinding, brilliantly white suit being chased, at night, and trying to evade capture. An unfortunately dressed baker somehow briefly alleviates the pressure when, improbably, two men dressed all in white end up running through back alleys in the dark of night.

We're also treated to a charmingly wide-eyed Guinness who plays his character of Sidney Stratton with a wonderful dose of obliviousness. His naivety is accepted, in part, because of the sympathetic qualities found in Guinness' performance. On first viewing, I thought Sidney took a turn at some point in the picture into more selfish intentions but now I'm not so sure.  He's steadily determined throughout the film. The difference from beginning to end is that he's told of the possible consequences the fabric would have and it makes no real impact on him. He registers negligible concern for those who might lose their jobs or the drastic effect it would have on the industry.

There are at least two ways to interpret Sidney's reaction. One is the more negative response of finding him to be overly arrogant and obtuse in neglecting to consider the potential consequences. But the other isn't so easy to judge and, as such, fascinating in its refusal to waver. If we view Sidney as being of roughly genius-level intelligence then his accomplishments bring to light the struggles of greatness. It's here that the film approaches salient, complicated commentary on the disconnect between innovation and pragmatism. It asks, without offering easy answers, what balance can be achieved when dealing with both progress and capitalistic realities. Again, The Man in the White Suit is an Ealing comedy but it really does inspire this level of thought if one is so inclined.

Indeed, the theoretical discussion is what dominates the afterglow of the picture for me. Mackendrick was a deeply intellectual filmmaker working, often, in deceptively simple genres. Here he was able to open up the debate into more philosophical terms while never straying from the entertainment angle. Interestingly, there are no easy or definitive answers to be found here. On the one hand, it's tempting to root for Sidney's individualism and determination. But any such ideas are quickly met by how difficult of a character he is and how chaotic his ideas would realistically affect the garment industry. We can actually go rather deep in the discussion here, and that in itself is a victory.

Adding to the film's appeal is the performance of Joan Greenwood as a supporting character in every sense of the phrase. She's very warm to Sidney and helpful, without ever falling into a kind of feckless female routine. Her motivations are perhaps a little uncertain at times but she still manages to convey a consistent strength. When negotiating for her compensation in seducing Sidney, she most boldly displays a keen awareness of the situation. In a film dominated largely by ideas and a central, though never showy performance by Guinness, the turn by Greenwood is particularly adept at providing the humanity beneath a chilly surface.

The Disc

A Region B disc, the Blu-ray released in the UK by StudioCanal is single-layered, of fine quality and even contains a nice featurette on the film.

The image, in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, looks reasonably good. It has been sourced from a high definition restoration which originated with the film's fine-grain inter-positive. Contrast here is well-measured and offers a nice balance. The level of grain on display appears fitting and consistent, yet not excessive. Detail represents a distinct upgrade over standard definition releases. A bit of damage in the form of occasional scratches running up and down the frame, most noticeable perhaps at the film's conclusion, does remain. Such blemishes, though, are infrequent. On the whole, the picture appears impressive and merits easy approval.

Audio comes in the form of an English LPCM mono track. Dialogue can be heard clearly and without incident. The two-channel track offers an unambitious yet satisfying listen free from unwanted distractions. Any damage has clearly been minimized. There are optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired.

The disc's bonus material is highlighted by a short featurette entitled "Revisiting The Man in the White Suit" (13:17) that includes interviews with director Stephen Frears and critic Ian Christie. In the piece, the film is lovingly discussed and even positioned against some of the other Ealing pictures.

Also included are a Stills Gallery consisting of nine images, a Restoration Comparison (5:00) which uses the old "before and after" method, and the film's theatrical trailer (2:40).

9 out of 10
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