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Monday, March 4, 2013

The Man in the White Suit (1951)

Ask your friends in the B movie fan community about British science fiction in the Fifties and you'll hear about Bernard Quatermass and Peter Cushing's iconic take on Baron Frankenstein as icy sociopath. Unless they don't know about these things, and then it's your job to tell them to go watch anything with a Hammer Studios logo on it before it's too late. Have 'em start with the Frankensteins.

But there's another British science-fiction film from the incredibly early fifties, meant to make people think about the changes coming to the world in the wake of the technical achievements that the second world war pushed into the national consciousness. It's even from a studio that even film fans may not have heard of--if you're into monster flicks you know Hammer and Amicus and Tigon, but if those are the only English flicks from decades past that you're into, you may have never even heard of Ealing.

The Ealing comedies were gentle in nature and British to the core, views of a culture in a gentle decline--after the War and before the Beatles, while England was trying to figure out its place in the world. The Lavender Hill Mob was a crime caper where a boring, stolid bank clerk figured out the perfect way to rob his employers blind and Kind Hearts and Coronets told the story of a half-relation to a noble family bumping off almost two dozen of the rich upper-crust men and women (all of whom were played by Sir Alec Guinness) so he could be in charge of the family. Because there's one other thing the Ealing comedies had, now that I think about it--a total lack of faith in humanity on the individual or collective level.

Now let's get started. I hope you like stock footage of textile machinery in operation, cause that's what we get, along with a voiceover telling us that we're going to hear the real story of the crisis--a story successfully kept out of the newspapers (and in 1951 in the UK, that meant keeping it out of public knowledge entirely, I guess. It's not like they had Fark to check on every morning). Mr. Corland, a young industrialist (played by a shockingly young and good-looking Michael Gough) is giving a tour of his mill to the old industrialist--Mr. Birnley--whose daughter Daphne he wants to marry. He is also lying like Sinatra's toupee about how much synthetic fiber he's able to produce, and soon everyone on the tour is in the R&D department, looking at everyone in lab coats doing SCIENCE! to build a better Rayon(TM). There's a tangle of glass flasks and rubber tubes that look a little like Walter White set up shop in London in the dawn of the Fifties and is burbling to itself in a manner that suggests a heavily sedated jazz trio. When the mill owner's daughter asks what the chemistry project is doing, it turns out that not a single scientist in the lab knows what it's for (the increasingly crowded shot of people trying to figure out what the heck this thing can be is one of the quiet pleasures of this part of the film). When the accounts department reveals that the whatever-it-is cost four thousand pounds, the CEO goes ballistic and sacks the janitor who built it.

Yes, janitor. Sidney Stratton (played by an also shockingly young Alec Guinness) put this thing together, and as he's being fired he gives the mildest, most mellow "the short-sighted fools laughed at me at the university but one day I'll show the world" speech (into what turns out to be a mirror in the employee bathroom), and walks off to the dole queue in order to look for another job. And in the next textile mill that employs him as a manual laborer might just wind up with another and even more burbling chemistry set in another lab that nobody can quite explain...

Before too terribly long Stratton is found out again (most manual laborers at a mill don't know the assembly and maintenance procedures for an electron microscope--worse, still, Daphne remembers him from the earlier office tour) but he convinces Daphne not to tell anyone that he's pilfering office supplies this time. And while he's babbling about amino acid residue polymer chains, Daphne finds that his passion for his work is a lot more interesting than Corland's passion for making money off other people's labor.

Back at the lab, Stratton continues tampering in God's domain and has a screaming euphoric fit about accomplishing whatever the heck it was that he was trying to do, he's fired on general principles for running around and yelling like a doofus. The flask of synthesized Whaddafuckizdiztuff is poured out into the drain and Stratton tries--half a dozen times--to get into Birnley's house. Birnley, at the same time, is apoplectic with rage looking for whoever it was that fraudulently ordered thousands of pounds' worth of chemical supplies). Daphne tells her father and the audience what the hell is going on, when she says that Stratton has developed a synthetic cloth that can never be damaged and actively repels dirt. When the metaphorical smoke clears, Stratton has a brand new job at Birnley's mill and a blank check to do whatever he wants--much to the ire of everyone who was in the existing power structure there. Though when he tries to smoke his cigar like a real mover and shaker, all he really manages to do is cough a lot.

The only thing worse than promising something like an indestructible miracle cloth and not delivering it, as it turns out, is making exactly good on your hype. After several explosively dangerous setbacks, Stratton eventually manages to create cloth for a suit that can't be torn, soiled or damaged, wearing an almost luminous pure white suit for the rest of the film.

Oh, and accidentally bringing about the complete ruin of Britain's economy while he's at it. For, you see, a suit that never needs cleaning is a suit that only has to be bought one time. And if everyone on the island bought an indestructible suit, the mills that produce the cloth would only do a single production run. And not just the millworkers would be out of a job; Birnley's all right with the sheep farmers of the UK never selling any more wool, of course, being a short-sighted buffoon. But then someone else points out to him that with no milling being done, he'll go under right after the mill workers go on the dole (though he's able to talk the other mill owners into forming a cabal to help suppress things rather than just strike out on his own). And everyone who depends on the money those workers spend will go under as well. And when both capital and labour realize that the wonder material Stratton devised in his spare time is a suicide pill for their way of life and he's gotten away from them, there's one poor clever chap on the run in England wearing a bright white target on his body...

It's a viciously dark movie underneath it all the running and yelling, snide dialogue and slapstick--the film provides a character for pretty much every possible point of view (one of the millworkers is a socialist firebrand who demands Stratton take a tea break even if he's not having tea, because the workers had to fight for it; there's old industrialists, young industrialists, shop stewards, mill workers and aged lords that supply a handy symbol for pretty every level of society in the UK. Even his aged landlady takes in washing, and without that meagre supplement to her income, she faces the possibility of destitution, homelessness and starvation thanks to Stratton's genius and achievement), and they all turn out to despise Stratton's completely awesome achievement once they realize the genuine damage that it'll cause to their way of life. But instead of being angry at the invention and the use to which it will be put, they're gunning for the inventor (who has done nothing to earn their spite except being unimaginably good at his job). And yet the film also shows that Stratton was rather thoughtless when he devised cloth that can't be torn--he's so obsessed with making the material that he never seems to have thought ahead to see what will happen when it's inevitably put to use. You may, like me, assume that this is a metaphor for the atomic bomb. And if that's the way you're looking at the story, the ending is one of the most chilling things you'll see in an allegedly light comedy--the defeated mad scientist, shorn of his achievement, walking off into the night, thinking to himself how to get it completely right next time. And so the saga of Jailbait Obi-Wan Kenobi versus Jailbait Alfred the Butler comes to a close.

I cannot imagine an American studio making a film with so many layers to it, so much cynicism, and so ruthless a summation of the national character. Either in 1951 or now, there's something in the Hollywood system that would prevent something this jaundiced from being made, let alone released. And even six decades from its release, there's something about the film that runs a chill down my spine when reasonable people devolve into a shrieking, homicidal mob in a matter of minutes.

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