Monday, January 12, 2009

The films of Alexander Mackendrick: The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers

I couldn't get to many of the other films in the HFA's Mackendrick series, with plenty of good stuff at the Brattle scheduled for the same weekend. When all is said and done, though, I'm happy with the two I saw. The Man in the White Suit has become a favorite of mine, and I was happy to see the Ealing verison of The Ladykillers for the first time. Though I knew I had seen the remake, I wasn't sure whether or not I had seen the original; it turned out to be new to me and quite entertaining.

The Man in the White Suit

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence)

It's possible to miss what a wonderful film The Man in the White Suit is because it jumps between so many different things, and doesn't necessarily finish any of them. It is romantic here, political here, and the light science fiction of a Twilight Zone episode here. It is funny throughout, to be sure, but that comedy goes from quiet farce to cartoonish bombast to sharp satire. It's never unsatisfying, as it turns out, a perfectly balanced comedy.

When we first meet Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), he (despite having been at Cambridge) is a janitor in the textile factor of Michael Corland (Michael Gough), who is trying to get more established manufacturer Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) to invest - and romancing his daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood). It's Daphne who spots the odd apparatus that Sidney has set up in the corner of the R&D department, and the discovery that he has been using company funds to purchase heavy hydrogen gets him fired. He soon finds a job as a laborer in the Birnley factory, where the discovers a synthetic fiber that doesn't get dirty and doesn't rip. Birnley initially sees pound signs, but soon both his competitors and the unions are up in arms about the implications of an indestructible fabric.

I don't think I've seen The Man in the White Suit on many lists of great science fiction films, which is a shame. No, it doesn't necessarily feel like one, or use many of the trappings other than a number of scenes in laboratories, but it's more prescient and insightful than many of its peers. It's the rare example of a film that seems to have actually listened to its science adviser; the technobabble Sidney spews actually sounds pretty reasonable almost sixty years later - the long-chain molecules he describes aren't so different from the carbon nanotubes much of today's materials research focuses on - and the screenplay anticipates nit-pickers' questions. More important is how it focuses on the immediate reaction to such an innovation - specifically, how items which never need replacing will throw industries into panic from top to bottom.

Granted, few people who aren't me are going to give all tha tmuch thought to how an Ealing Comedy works as science fiction as opposed to as a comedy. Happily, it's excellent on that count, too - director Alexander Mackendrick and his co-writers (including Roger MacDougall, who wrote the original play) start slow, with chuckles coming from Sidney's attempts to do his experiments on the sly, even though his apparatus pumps out a distinctive (and catchy!) beat. Lots of comedy is mined from the tendencies of Sidney's early formulations to blow up, and Guinness does a fine job both running around in chase scenes and playing something of a wide-eyed innocent, though not a stereotypical absent-minded scientist.

There's plenty of other amusing folks in the cast. Michael Gough is mainly a straight man as Corland, but Ernest Thesiger makes a late entrance and wins just about every scene he's in as Sir John Kierlaw, the hilariously old and infirm but still fiery leader of the fabric-makers' coalition. Cecil Parker sells Birnley perfectly, kind of stuffy but also kind of in over his head, led by his greed but not defined by it. Henry Mollison makes every scene he's in as Sidney's assistant funnier, and Vida Hope is hilariously strident as the union member who befriends Stratton.

At first, I wasn't terribly impressed with Joan Greenwood as Daphne - she's got kind of a weird voice and initially just seems like the obligatory girl. They do interesting things with her character, though, and I don't just say that because it's a pretty girl who suddenly finds herself interested in science. The arc of the character is interesting, because it's probably more complete than Sidney's, but since the movie is not actually about her, done in the background. She gets a few very nice, understated scenes in the third act, and I found myself liking and appreciating that Daphne's growth amounts to more than switching one boyfriend for another.

And that's marvelous. The Man in the White Suit has belly-laughs aplenty, and could have just done the usual thing around them. Instead, it's just a little smarter than it has to be, and rewards even the picky audience members.

Also at HBS.

The Ladykillers

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 January 2009 at the Harvard Film Archive (Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence)

The theme given for the Harvard Film Archive's retrospective of director Alexander Mackendrick's films is "The Anarchy of Innocence". It's a theme that runs through all his films, perhaps never more clearly than in his best-known work, Ealing Studios' The Ladykillers.

One is unlikely to find a more innocent person than Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a widow of some years who is currently busy apologizing to the local police superintendent (Jack Warner) for the previous day's report of an alien invasion. She's also advertising for a boarder, an offer that "Professor" Marcus (Alec Guinness) takes her up on. Any reasonable person can see that this man is not to be trusted, and his story that he and his friends are a string quartet. Those friends are Claude (Cecil Parker), Harry (Peter Sellers), One-Round (Danny Green), and Louis (Herbert Lom), and they're planning a payroll robbery. Their plan involves Mrs. Wilberforce's unwitting participation, and is, of course, vulnerable to the greed of its participants.

Katie Johnson is billed seventh, as "The Old Lady", which doesn't come close to indicating how crucial she is to every part of the film. She initially appears little more than someone worthy of pity, and we're never quite able to take her seriously throughout the film. And yet we never fear for her or find her to be in particular danger, because she does have that purity of heart that almost wills her to be safe. She's not given many lines that are funny in and of themselves, but she delivers them with dry perfection. As befits the lead in a Mackendrick movie, she has the sort of innocence that leaves a trail of destruction behind her, and though it's not always easy to believe in her obliviousness to it, Johnson sells us on that, as well as the moment when she does realize just what she's involved in.

The five crooks of the title are all amusing in their own way. Alec Guinness makes Marcus into a grotesquery, with a face filled with ugly teeth and hair and an oily, arrogant manner that immediately repulses everyone in the audience. It is, truth be told, the sort of outlandish character one might normally expect Peter Sellers to be playing, but Sellers is perhaps the least memorable of the crew, a somewhat jittery youngster. Cecil Parker is blustery and charming as the middle-aged veteran, while Herbert Lom tends to dominate scenes with his slick, hard-edged tough. It's Danny Green who steals the show, though, as the group's muscle, and though he basically hits on every familiar note as the big, dumb lummox sick of being called stupid, it's seldom been done so well.

Mackendrick and the other filmmakers place and keep us in a world that is slightly askew, filled with pictures that won't hang straight because the house itself has been crooked since the War. Marcus first appears as a menacing shadow, and his face seems to go to pieces along with his patience. The heist is a wonderfully timed bit of action, and the last act, where the crooks try to eliminate the old lady but find themselves stymied, is wonderfully nasty and a brilliant example of how to use a running gag to punctuate what's going on.

Nearly fifty years later, the Coen brothers would assemble a fine cast in their attempt to transplant the story to America, but they would be unable to capture the original's innocence and anarchy. It's Mackendrick's specialty, and seldom is it done to better effect.

Also at HBS, along with one other review.

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