The Man In The White Suit | Alexander Mackendrick | 1951

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Screenplays come in three sizes: LONG, TOO LONG and MUCH TOO LONG — Alexander Mackendrick, On Film-Making

Mackendrick is one of the very greatest British film-makers: the director of, among others, Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers, The Maggie and A High Wind in Jamaica. After writing and directing 1957’s unforgettable The Sweet Smell of Success he went to teach at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, and his classes provided the text for On Film-Making, one of the few essential books on the subject .

It’s a spiky, exhilarating read, full of good practical advice. And it’s rare in its genre, partly because it’s written by a man who was himself such a master of the craft, and also because of its focus on the audience. Most books about movies are all about the rights of the artist. Mackendrick’s is about those of the audience. Here are a few more of his famous “Slogans for the Screenwriter’s Wall”, with Mackendrick’s own liberal use of capitals:

Movies SHOW … and then TELL. A true movie is likely to be 60 to 80 percent comprehensible if the dialogue is in a foreign language.

BEWARE OF SYMPATHY BETWEEN CHARACTERS. That is the END of drama.

If it can be cut out, then CUT IT OUT. Everything non-essential that you can eliminate strengthens what’s left. 

Use coincidence to get characters into trouble, not out of trouble.

NARRATIVE DRIVE: the end of a scene should include a clear pointer as to what the next scene is going to be. 

If you’ve got a Beginning but don’t yet have an end, then you’re mistaken. You don’t have the right Beginning.

What is happening NOW is apt to be less dramatically interesting than what may or may not HAPPEN NEXT. 

TWO ELEMENTS OF SUSPENSE ARE HALF AS SUSPENSEFUL AS ONE.

At a lean 85 minutes The Man In The White Suit is a masterclass in crisp, efficient storytelling, and the pace never falters from the first scene to the last. We first meet Alec Guinness’s young chemist Sidney Stratton, as a lowly lab technician at a successful textile plant. Convinced of his own greatness, he’s clearly failed to convince anyone else, at least since his Cambridge scholarship, so he’s developing his own new formula in secret. His idea: a new synthetic fabric that’s both dirt resistant and indestructible, thus — as he sees it — freeing women the world over from drudgery and revolutionising the clothing industry.

The experiment, when we first see it, is beautifully dramatised, the sound of its bloops and bubbles creating its own theme tune, which recurs throughout the film. The authentically grim setting of the mill and its surroundings also show Mackendrick’s skill at creating a reality that makes his fantasy all the more convincing, a principle that runs through all his best work.

And of course there is conflict, right from the start. Sidney Stratton is proof that a hero need not be likeable, or at least not necessarily someone that you’d choose as a friend. He’s brilliant, but also arrogant, convinced of his own greatness, and he’s unable to see – or even appreciate — how much his workmate Bertha (Vida Hope) loves him. Indeed, at every point in the film he’s looking for an angle that might better benefit himself — or at least his invention — but his dauntless sense of purpose drives the story forward, and when his experiment finally succeeds we barely need the soundtrack’s fanfare to encourage us to cheer.

But like so many Ealing movies, The Man In The White Suit is stranger and darker than it’s fondly remembered to be. There’s a thread of politics all the way through, as Bertha fights for the workers’ cause, and a fierce argument at the heart of the film: if progress comes at the cost of jobs, is it really progress at all? As an unlikely alliance develops between capital and labour, the film becomes more of a thriller than a comedy, with a strong satirical edge.

The Man In The White Suit is terrific storytelling, packed with action and suspense as well as humour: another of Mackendrick’s maxims is Comic structure is simply dramatic structure but MORE SO: neater, shorter, faster. Every character is distinct, every scene has a purpose, and each line is there for a reason. We can all learn from Mackendrick, and we should all be glad to have his work.

Here’s a 1986 Scottish Television documentary about Mackendrick and his work:

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