Arts blog: ‘The Man In The White Suit encapsulates creativity of Alexander Mackendrick’

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The Ealing classic is being re-released to mark its director’s centenary. Alistair harkness explains the importance of the film to the scot who made it

Earlier this year the Glasgow Film Festival quietly marked the centenary of Alexander Mackendrick’s birth by screening his culture-clashing nautical comedy, The Maggie, on a boat. It was a nice gesture, not least because the American-born, Glasgow-raised director of some of the most brilliantly made and influential British and American films of the post-war era (Whisky Galore!, The Ladykillers, The Sweet Smell of Success) always maintained that The Maggie was his most personal film.

Why? Because Mackendrick identified with both the American businessman who eventually learns to reconnect with what’s important in life, and the wee Scottish lad whose devotion to the wily captain of the titular Clydeside puffer inspires said rehabilitation.

That sense of dual national identity – the successful American, the wistful Scot – was undoubtedly important in shaping Mackendrick. As a double outsider at Ealing Studios, his status emboldened him to set all but one of the five pictures he made for the legendary studio outside of its London production base.

Likewise, when he subsequently returned to America to make The Sweet Smell of Success, his savage, pugnacious and prescient takedown of showbusiness and celebrity culture, his then-radical decision to shoot on the streets of New York rather than on a studio backlot reflected his ambivalence to Hollywood – something he used to joke was prenatal on account of his Scottish parents’ decision to move from Los Angeles to Boston just before he was born.

As delightful, poignant and influential as The Maggie is, however (and Local Hero certainly owes it a debt), when it comes to gauging the complexity and importance of Mackendrick as a director, there’s perhaps no better film to revisit than his second feature, The Man in the White Suit.

First released in 1951 and digitally restored for a centenary-marking DVD and Blu-ray reissue later this month, the film solidified Mackendrick’s reputation as a leading creative talent at Ealing. More than this, though, a reacquaintance with the film reveals just how strikingly it encapsulates and comments on everything Mackendrick stood for creatively.

Revolving around a maverick chemist called Sidney Stratton (wryly played by Alec Guinness) as he rails against corporate interests in an attempt to produce a new type of indestructible, dirt-repellent fabric, its premise is often mistakenly read as a celebration of misunderstood genius. That’s no real surprise considering the way a single-minded visionary battling the compromising forces of commerce has become a comforting myth for many an artist over the years. Mackendrick, however, wasn’t one of them.

He may subsequently have endured plenty of difficulties during his increasingly fruitless attempts to negotiate the more commercially oriented world of Hollywood, but as a Glasgow School of Art dropout who cut his teeth in the tough world of advertising and made propaganda films for the Ministry of Information, he didn’t have much time for the director-as-God approach to filmmaking. Self-expression was important; self-indulgence – especially at the expense of others – was not.

It’s an attitude that he instinctively codified in The Man in the White Suit. As the implications of the protagonist’s pursuits for the masses become ever more clear – implications he never once stops to consider – the film takes on a darker, more acerbic edge. By the film’s end Stratton is as arrogant and delusional as the corporate paymasters he thinks he’s fighting against. In short: he hasn’t learned a thing.

Mackendrick on the other hand never stopped learning. After his creatively unsatisfying – if aptly titled – flop Don’t Make Waves (1969) made it clear that he was he was never going to get the money to make his long-cherished movie about Mary Queen of Scots, he learned that it was probably better for him not to blindly soldier on, but to retire from directing altogether. Rather than retreat and lick his wounds, however, he reconnected with the aspects of filmmaking that were most important to him by becoming the dean of the film school at the Disney-funded California Institute of the Arts. And there he taught, inspiring subsequent generations of filmmakers until shortly before his death in December 1993 at the age of 81. Like his films – if not always the characters in them – Mackendrick put people first. It’s why his work has endured and why it will continue to do so.

• The Man in the White Suit is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 19 November.