THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT directed by Alexander Mackendrick (UK, 1951)
Built-in obsolescence has become so much the norm these days that most of us take it for granted.
Part of this is due to the rapidity of technological advances but as devices get increasingly smaller, lighter and thinner, it often gets to the point when these ‘improvements’ become simply ways to induce the public to buy the same product over and over again.
It also seems self-evident that it is not in the manufacturer’s interest to produce a perfect product that will last a lifetime.
This is the premise for ‘The Man In The White Suit’ in which Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) is a brilliant research chemist in a textiles factory who invents a material that never gets dirty and never wears out.
Initial enthusiasm for this discovery quickly turns to panic when the company owners and workers realise that this invention will put all of them out of work.
It makes for quite an odd film which stands apart from other movies made in the heyday of Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and 1950s. Its dashing star, Alec Guinness, is a brilliant character actor but, unlike say Stanley Holloway or Peter Sellers who appeared in other classics of this era, he was not such a natural when it comes to comedy.
And it’s a bit misleading to describe it simply as a comic movie anyway even though there are elements of farce as the common man is pitted first against the establishment and then has to confront the wrath of the worker’s unions. There’s even a hint of romance as the wonderfully seductive Joan Greenwood as the boss’s rebellious daughter joins forces with Sidney.
The film is even commonly labelled as Science Fiction although I think it is more accurate to think of it as a post-war social satire. WWII was supposed to have brought people of all walks of life together in fighting a common enemy but this film shows that the British class divide was as intrenched as ever.
The pomposity of the factory owners and the intransigence of the workers means that the ‘haves and have nots’ are only united again by a wish to preserve their own interests rather than seeing a potential good for society as a whole. Instead of being heralded as an innovator, the idealistic Sidney is regarded as an enemy of the people.
The movie is great fun but quite dated now. In hindsight, it was quite daring for its time and if a remake was ever proposed, this precautionary tale would probably take on a far darker and more sinister aspect.