Posted by David Kalat on February 23, 2013
So, what should you set your timers this week, you ask? Well, there’s a block of Ealing Comedies coming up on Thursday that should be a destination for you. All of them are great, but it’s The Man in the White Suit I’m going to single out for attention today. And not just that, but a specific aspect of this glorious 1951 British satire.
Mind you, this is a movie that received Oscar nominations for its screenplay, stars Alec Guinness, and is widely hailed as a pointed political satire. It has been ranked as one of the BFI’s Top 100 British Films, includes the likes of Michael Gough and Ernest Thesiger in the cast, and was produced by the man who launched Alfred Hitchcock’s career. One of its sound effects was released as a novelty record on its own and entered the public consciousness separate from the film. There’s a lot here to talk about… but I’m not interested in any of that. I want to talk about the one aspect of this film that gets almost no attention—certainly nowhere near the amount of attention it deserves: the sharp, clever direction by Alexander Mackendrick.
It should not be an especially controversial position to take to note that most comedies are distinguished by their stars. Whether you are talking about silent comedians in the 1920s or SNL spin offs today, comedies are nearly always classified and remembered for their comedians. (My DVD copy of The Man in the White Suit came in a box set of Alec Guinness comedies, as if his presence alone was what linked them.)
Certainly there have been great comedy directors, but when you filter out those who are also comedy stars (Charlie Chaplin, Jacques Tati, Woody Allen) the ranks of popularly recognizable comedy directors are thin indeed. And many of the best comedy directors know to get out of the way, as it were, and focus their energies on shaping the best comic performances. Comedies do not tend to be the venue for a lot of aesthetic experimentation and cinematic gimmickry–the goal of most comedy directors is just to make sure the audience can see and hear the jokes properly.
This may be one reason why comedies are historically underrepresented among Oscar winners and critics’ Best Of lists. If you’re a director with an eye for visual flair and creative editing, you tend to gravitate towards dramas.
Which brings us to Alexander Mackendrick, co-writer and director of The Man in the White Suit. His name probably doesn’t ring any bells, even though he was a key figure in the classic Ealing comedies and also directed the equally auterist Ladykillers (which airs alongside White Suit this week, ahem).
Mackendrick was no journeyman hack. He not only had his hand in some of Ealing’s most acclaimed comedies, he then emigrated to Hollywood where he directed The Sweet Smell of Success, and became the dean of film studies at California Institute of the Arts. But we don’t even need to marvel at his CV to know he knew what he was doing, because it’s written all over Man in the White Suit.
To demonstrate, let’s first look at what he was not doing. I said before that most comedy directors narrow their ambitions to making sure the audience can see and hear the jokes properly. So, where are the jokes in Man in the White Suit?
Not the performances, surely. Guinness toplines a cast of high distinction (Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Ernest Thesiger, Colin Gordon) but all of these fine performers play their parts with a calm, veddy veddy British stiff-upper-liffed restraint. This is as far from comedy mugging as you can get.
There are no really quotable lines—where the dialogue does land a laugh here or there it’s more in context than in wit. “What about my bit of washing, when there’s no washing to do?” is a pretty awesome line, but it takes about 90 minutes of setup to work. While there are scattered moments of physical comedy, nobody comes to this for the slapstick. In fact, let me say that while I’ve seen this many times and the first time was an exceedingly memorable theatrical revival in New York, every time I revisit it (as I did on DVD to prepare for this article), I am surprised by the rare moments of slapstick. That’s not what this is about.
So if it’s not a comedy because of comic performances, then perhaps the joke is in the premise?
The story concerns an idealistic young inventor who develops a new form of synthetic fabric that can mimic the feel of cotton or wool or what have you, but will never get dirty and will never wear out or tear. All you need is one set of clothes and that’s all—no more laundry, no more replacements. This threatens the traditional textile industries at all levels—bosses who see their business model rendered obsolete, and workers who see their jobs going away. Everyone has a vested interest in shutting this whole thing down—except the poor guy who thought it up.
There is arch social commentary here, but watching capitalism made to look foolish doesn’t induce belly-laughs. And in many ways, watching this in 2013 imbues the satirical aspects with an undercurrent they didn’t have in 1951. The makers wanted to use this silly parable as a way of pointing out how great world-saving progress is held back by the profit motive of the status quo. For a long time, that’s the context in which this would be viewed—by audiences who could dream of cars that used water as fuel, or miracle drugs that inoculated users against all disease, or other marvels that would certainly make life better but also fail to make lots of money.
Oh, but watch this now, and it’s hard not to hear overtones of the information economy coming through in the dialogue. Last week I made reference to e-books (and inspired some commenters to note they intend to fight to keep real books in existence). Just taking the e-book example as a point of reference, here is an invention that makes life better in so many ways—books now need never go out of print, every person has instantaneous access to a library whose depth makes the Library of Congress seem paltry. People like me who spend up to half an hour a day in elevators can read any book they want during those elevator rides without having to actually carry anything more than a 4 ounce piece of glass. But the advent of e-books and other digital media threaten to put publishers out of business, deny writers a living wage, and create massive economic turmoil.
We live in a world full of Alec Guinnesses, merrily inventing to their hearts’ content, and jobs are routinely lost to their developments.
All of which is interesting—and certainly worth discussing—but it isn’t, y’know, funny.
So, where are the jokes?
They’re in the images, in the overall construction. Which is counter-intuitive—because as the screen grabs I’m using as illustrations demonstrate, this movie looks like a film noir. It is drenched in deep shadows, off-kilter camera angles, atmospheric mood-setting compositions. The introduction of Thesiger’s character plays like the introduction of a James Bond villain, a passing view of the landscape looks like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Any individual frame of Douglas Slocombe’s photography looks like a grim drama—but watch it in motion, even with the sound turned down, and the comedy comes through.
Let’s look at three key scenes that highlight Mackendrick’s deft touch.
The setup for our first sample scene is this: Guinness has been fired from a series of jobs at textile mills because his unauthorized experiments keep costing money and creating havoc. He’s landed a new job at one of the top mills in the country, and waited for his chance to get near the laboratory—a chance that comes when he’s asked to deliver an electron microscope.
There’s a lot going on in this scene: Guinness’ character is anxious to get his break at resuming his experiments, and his genuine scientific know-how and boundless enthusiasm land him that opportunity before he even realizes it’s happened. Meanwhile, his superiors—denoted by their natty suits and white lab coats, compared to his drubby overalls (clothes make all the difference in this movie)—are navigating their own complex and contradictory emotions, at once eager to take advantage of his obvious skills while also a little put off by the disruptions of class boundaries and proper procedure. Mind you, all of this comes across in the span of two minutes without any of the characters ever saying any of it! Mackendrick stages this in such a way that subtle cues of body language and inflection carry far more meaning than words ever could.
Now let’s take a look at the aftermath of this event—Guinness has ensconced himself in the lab with the green-light to do what it takes to develop his miracle fabric. Unfortunately, all of his experiments result in massive explosions. And then this—
In lesser hands, this would be about boss Cecil Parker’s unwitting endangerment—he’s standing right next to the thing that has exploded 100% of the time up until now. And staging it that way would work, but less well. Instead, Mackendrick knows that the audience knows of the danger—and the ludicrous use of WWII-era bomb shelter motifs and air raid helmets foregrounds that concept even though it is never spoken. Since he comfortably takes that aspect of the scene as a given, he can put the emphasis instead on the joyful boyish optimism of Guinness’ character, his delight at realizing the experiment finally worked (which he knows only because he didn’t hear an explosion), and his terror at realizing his boss was standing next to Ground Zero. If you replay the scene, notice the way the camera leaves Parker in the background distance as he enters the room to settle instead on the scene behind the sandbags, how little screentime Parker actually gets.
The last clip involves Guinness modeling the first prototype of the titular White Suit. Slocombe’s lighting is crucial to selling the idea that this suit is absolutely luminous, and faintly radioactive. Making the costume out of special reflective fabric helped, but notice also how everything else in this scene is toned down, darkened, enshrouded in shadow.
It isn’t strictly necessary—the script has established enough of the suit’s properties that simply having him wear an immaculate white suit would satisfy the narrative requirements, but Mackendrick’s team went the extra mile to make it seem otherworldly, yet also real.
Contrast this almost OCD-level of detail-oriented precision with the usual methodology one finds in comedy filmmaking: an almost point-and-shoot aesthetic that lets the comedians have as much room to improvise as possible–whether it’s Charlie Chaplin improvising The Cure to the point that the characters and premise mutate completely into an entirely new film from the one he started shooting, or Christopher Guest overseeing the improvisation of a series of mockumentaries, or Adam Mackay letting Will Ferrell have his head and see where it all goes.
The script to The Man in the White Suit could have turned into a wacky farce. I can imagine someone like a Jerry Lewis mugging his way through this, and a broad farcical attitude throughout. It wouldn’t have been good, but it would have been easy, a default stance. A generic comedy.
Yet in these three small scenes we have seen Mackendrick’s careful manipulation of the blocking of his actors, the position of the camera, the editorial choices, and lighting to convey ideas and information not contained in the dialogue. This is not a silent comedy by any means—if you watch it with the sound turned down you’ll miss a lot—but the images are working hard to underscore and embellish the dialogue.
At the same time, these directorial decisions are not ostentatious. The legions who have lined up to praise this film usually direct their laudatory comments to the writer and cast, and leave off mention of Mackendrick. He did what he did with the confidence of his ideas. It was a quiet confidence, unafraid of his eccentricity, that succeeded by virtue of that unafraid confident eccentricity—just like Guinness’ onscreen character, at that.
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