Rodrigo Manubens recommends Alexander Mackendrick’s classic, playing at Film Forum through November 22nd.

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In The Man in the White Suit, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1951 Ealing Studios comedy,Alec Guinness plays Sydney Stratton, a resilient and enthusiastic scientist craving his big break.  He begins taking low-paying jobs in textile mills to sneak time in their labs and experiment on a secret invention.  But Stratton often takes his experiments too far, and he gets sacked by textile mill after textile mill. At last, he sneaks his way into a laboratory equipped with the cutting edge resources he needs, and after a series of genuinely explosive attempts, he fabricates a revolutionary, indestructible new fiber that repels all dirt and stains.

The factory owner (Cecil Parker) initially views the fabric as the ultimate product for his company, and he gets a tailor to create a prototype suit for Stratton himself.  His luminous clothing turns him into the guiding light of progress, leading the rest of humanity towards a future free of tattered apparel. Unfortunately, the eminent leaders of the textile industry see Stratton’s invention as a threat to their position as fabric feudal lords, and they attempt to suppress Stratton with bribes, enslaving contracts, and isolation tactics. They even send Stratton’s boss’ alluring daughter, played by Joan Greenwood, to try to seduce him, but she ends up helping him instead.

On the other hand, local workers see the imminent destruction of their hard-earned jobs.  Their anxiety is a shock to the idealistic Stratton, who slowly begins to realize the negative consequences of his invention. Facing pressure from both sides of the capitalist system, Stratton must escape from both business owners and workers who take to the streets to pursue him and prevent the dissemination of his invention.

The social stakes are unusually high for a comedy, but the film’s dry, deadpan humor enhances its power and catalyzes our attention.  We care about Stratton instead of just laughing at him.  The film is funny, entertaining, and true all at once.