Ealing comedies are a very particular species of film. On the one hand they have a seemingly cosy, inoffensive familiarity about them – very British, very undemanding. Yet virtually to a film we find on closer inspection that they have real bite to them. The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport to Pimlico, The Ladykillers and Kind Hearts & Coronets – all feature dark, subversive elements and this film, digitally remastered to commemorate what would be director Alexander Mackendrick’s 100th birthday, is no exception. At first glance, a slightly twee tale about a nerdy scientist gamely trying to invent something revolutionary, in the end we get class warfare, the suppression of invention by corporate interests and a fairly reactionary critique of science (“why can’t you scientists leave things alone”).
The ever-versatile Guinness is of course exemplary in the title role – all wide-eyed innocence and single-minded purposefulness. His is actually a fairly annoying character and in less subtle hands would have become a detraction from the film, but that particular tight-rope is safely navigated here. Joan Greenwood also excels as the daughter of Cecil Parker’s befuddled factory owner, Birnley. She is a strange but endearing presence in the film, seemingly never quite sure of where to pitch her character but in the end coming up as an ally for Guinness.
As is always the case with Ealing’s comedy output, at least during this heyday, the pacing is excellent. 85 minutes is nice and brisk and the script moves swiftly and clearly through Sidney’s experiments and then the fallout from his invention. Eventually, the film reduces down to a simple foot-chase, as everyone tries to get their hands, quite literally, on Sidney and his suit. As the various contributors to the short retrospective featured as an extra rightly note, it is a chase sequence thoroughly organic to the film and its narrative, rather than being a break from the narrative because a studio exec decided a chase scene was needed. The script is sharp and affecting, especially when the massed ranks of factory heads agree to pay Greenwood to seduce Sidney into giving up his invention. It is a short-lived but punchy scene, acting, script and undertones all complementing each other to great effect.
Although it lacks the bite or resonance of Kind Hearts or The Ladykillers, that is no great criticism of The Man In The White Suit. It is like berating The Departed for not being quite as good as Goodfellas or Taxi Driver. A slightly unsympathetic lead character and a slight lack of engaging personalities among the supporting cast leave this a little shy of classic status, but it is still head and shoulders above much contemporary big screen comedy, showing us that edgy laughs can be achieved without resorting to the sort of crass, smutty, mean-spirited nonsense often being peddled to us these days. Check it out on remastered DVD and BD from 19th November.
Extras: Not much. The big appeal here is the digital clean up, with a before/after comparison forming one featurette. There is a retrospective contributed to by Stephen Frears and a pair of film historians, which is informative enough if not ground-breaking in its analysis and a set of stills and a trailer round things off.