Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 20: The Man in the White Suit (1951)

At the end of my last blog, I claimed this film was one of Ealing’s contributions to the ‘science fiction’ genre, a claim I also make (albeit in passing) in my new book Science Fiction Film: A Critical Introduction (Berg 2011). Given I didn’t have space to pursue that argument in depth in the book, I want to explore the film’s relationship to genre in this post, and think how some of its choices might challenge easy generic assumptions around this supposedly classic ‘Ealing comedy.’
I note at the start of Science Fiction Film that a ‘concrete, unyielding definition’ can be reductive when dealing with SF, a genre as ‘notable for its flexibility and... hybridity as it is for a series of conventions around developing technology or science.’ However, it is clear that many a genre film ‘engages with (and visualises) cultural debates around... the future, artificial creation, technological invention... [and] scientific experimentation.’ (Johnson 2011, 1) To my mind, The Man in the White Suit fulfils several of those categories, as a film whose narrative constantly returns to technology, its products, and the wider cultural reaction to new discoveries.

Take Sidney Stratton’s (Alec Guinness) laboratory equipment: a twisting, coiling series of glass tubes and beakers, through which shoot spurts of liquid, which eventually come to rest as a bubbling and pulsating viscous form in the largest container. Every appearance of this apparatus is hailed by a beautiful piece of sound design: a burbling, electronic, throbbing sonic presence that suggests whatever is in those beakers is unusual, alien, ‘other,’ in some way. The film knowingly borrows aural and visual design elements from existing film portrayals of the ‘mad scientist’ figure and those scientist’s laboratories, familiar locations to audiences au fait with Frankenstein (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933) (films that tend to be referred to as ‘horror,’ however broad and inaccurate that definition might be here). Indeed, many of the films of this period that present a mad scientist joyfully bounce between science fiction, horror, thriller, gangster and comedy genre identities: the likes of The Invisible Ray (1936), Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man (1943) or The Perfect Woman (1949) are generic hybrids that foreground ‘mad’ science and similar complicated laboratory set-ups (from which chaos, inevitably ensues).

Stratton himself shares generic similarities with earlier scientific figures such as Dr. Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll or Dr Griffin, all of whom had been regularly brought to cinematic life. Committed and driven, conscious only of his work (and associated experiments), socially inept, and unaware of larger issues (moral, economic or personal), Stratton is blind to anything but the laboratory and the big idea. Yet this naive and innocent persona can also switch, in the same scene, to cocky and pompous, a quality also shared by his generic predecessors: it is to Guinness’ credit that Stratton remains likeable throughout much of the film, despite this mercurial personality. Those moments where the naive mask briefly drops remind us that a film about black and white has a central figure who is himself morally grey.

These science fiction themes – and the obvious parallel to stories such as Frankenstein – occur through visual/aural display, character and narrative. The story of The Man in the White Suit is familiar to anyone who has watched earlier genre films: the brilliant, but driven, scientist creates something new; his creation threatens to disrupt the social order (often physically, as in the case of Frankenstein’s Monster, or Metropolis’ robotic Maria); forcing the representatives of society gather to try and control the scientist and his creation. The end of this film features (quite literally) a rampaging mob of villagers racing through the streets of Wellsborough in pursuit of the mad scientist and his creation, the suit, which threatens all of their lives. Stratton is creator and creation, mad scientist and monstrous figure by the end, a luminous glowing presence in the dark and mean streets of Wellsborough (and which offer another potential generic thread – of film noir – through Douglas Slocombe’s gorgeous cinematography): it is no accident that the mob that chase and corner Stratton literally tear the monster to pieces, shredding his suit in their hands and destroying the ‘other’ that has upset their social situation. It is also firmly hinted that Stratton, like all great mad scientists, is still concocting new, more advanced, creations – the film’s coda has him walking out of Birnley’s mill, struck by a thought, and striding down the street, while the sonic laboratory noises rise to dominate the soundtrack.

Author John Wyndham felt the science fiction genre imagined ‘a technology, or an effect of a technology... such as humanity, up to the time of writing, has not in actual fact experienced.’ (Wyndham The Seeds of Time, 1968, 7) The Man in the White Suit takes that idea – the effect of a new (as yet undiscovered) technology as its central issue: what would the effect be if someone created a miraculous new artificial fabric that couldn’t be destroyed, wouldn’t ever get dirty, or wear out? As Charles Barr has pointed out, it means the film engages with industrial relations, wealth, and the obstructive nature of big business, but at its heart, this remains a story about technology. The film opens on shots of an electric weaving machine; its camera glides across scientific workbenches full of Bunsen burners, test tubes and electric equipment; the lingering shots of Stratton’s workbench, both small and (once mill owner Birnley (Cecil Parker) employs him) larger and more impressive renditions of the same equipment. Telephones play an important role in the comic misunderstandings that power much of the narrative; while Stratton’s new cotton thread is presented as the most technologically advanced element known to man.

Despite the presence of all these strong generic conventions, the film is rarely discussed in these terms, but more in relation to its comic and political roots. Barr sets the tone by seeing the film as ‘a statement about England... governed by consensus’ and a ‘story of frustration, blockage and stagnation’ (Barr 1980, 134-5). To me, however, this reading is too reliant on Barr’s overarching narrative of Ealing (and Britain) stagnating through the 1950s to focus on the visual and thematic content of this one film. His sense of the film as a dramatisation of Alexander Mackendrick and Michael Balcon’s relationship is fascinating, but does appear to ignore the broader generic and intertextual world highlighted above (and often the evidence of the film) in favour of anecdotal evidence of Balcon’s leadership.

The film challenges aspects of Ealing’s ‘small is good, big is bad’ comedic world (seen in Passport to Pimlico (1948) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953) by ridiculing big and small: the business of Birnley Mills and the bigger business of the British textile industry (represented in gothic fashion by Ernest Thesiger as Sir John Kierlaw, a cadaverous spider at the centre of the textile web) is satirised as first desperate for, and fearful of, this new fabric. Yet the ‘small’ (here represented by both trade unionism and individual labourers such as Stratton’s landlady, Mrs Watson – Edie Martin) is also anti-Stratton, because his invention threatens their livelihood: the main representative of this position, Stratton’s friend Bertha, tells him off for not taking a tea break which ‘we had to fight for’ and, upon hearing he has a new (unpaid job) retorts ‘I don’t care whether you want to get paid or not – you’ve got to get paid.’ Like the trade union representatives (and the Ministry) in Titfield, neither side understands the central character’s obsession: big and small eventually join forces (a curious echo of Metropolis where labour and management come together) to hunt Stratton down.

As noted above, the film features a tour-de-force performance from Alec Guinness as the guileless but arrogant Stratton, but the film has several other strong performances: Cecil Parker is smug and scared in equal measure by the change in his mill’s fortunes; Thesiger is presented as evil incarnate, cocooned within a voluminous cloak, or sinking into high-backed chairs, offering to prostitute Birnley’s daughter, Daphne, if it will get him the result he wants.  Daphne (Joan Greenwood) is more problematic as a character – and, as Barr notes, disappears from the film when her role is fulfilled. She appears as fiancé to Michael Corland (Michael Gough), head of a another mill (where Stratton initially works) but is drawn to Stratton’s equipment and experiments well ahead of any male character. The relationship with Corland largely disappears, Daphne spots Stratton at her father’s mill, but then becomes interested in his work, showing an aptitude for the science, and supporting his ideas (she is, as Barr notes, the person who actually explains what Stratton’s invention can do). Daphne acts as a voice of optimism in the film: she sees the possibilities of the material, where Stratton only sees the science, and the textile industry/union only see the problems it will cause.

Daphne is also both sexualised by the men in power, and blithely aware of the power of her own sexuality. In a sexually charged scene with innuendo-laden dialogue, Kierlaw offers Daphne money to seduce Stratton and convince him to sign a new contract: she is aware of what is being asked, and demands more money for the job. Greenwood is particularly strong here as, in the course of five minutes, she has to go from conniving femme fatale with Kierlaw, through seductress (with Stratton), to idealistic crusader when she gets Stratton to agree to reveal his story (and material) to the world.

The comedy elements of the film are obviously not inconsequential: there are some great verbal exchanges (Stratton declares ‘I won’t stay in your house another minute’ just before Birnley’s butler succeeds in throwing him out) and visual touches (Stratton, in his luminous white suit, tries to hide below an advertisement for raincoats that promise to hide ‘a multitude’). This is a film of multiple generic pleasures: science fiction (and aspects of horror) in its topic, themes, character and visual aspects; thriller or film noir in the rain-soaked dark streets and alleys where Stratton hides from the mob, or the appearance of the textile barons like gangsters in their overcoats and matching black cars; comedy in its dialogue and physical slapstick. To insist the film sits within one category lessens the film and its place within the Ealing canon.

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