As the Monty Python gang used to say, "And now for something completely different." London's Ealing Studios' little B-movie makes a wonderful addition to anyone's sci-fi collection that's getting too gloomy. I mean, you can only take so much end-of-the-world stuff before it starts to bring you down. Even though Man in the White Suit (MIWS) doesn't have saucers or aliens or even atomic bombs, it's still a sci-fi flick. For something completely different, it focuses on chemistry.
Quick Plot Synopsis
Sidney Stratton is a frustrated chemical scientist working in a British textile mill's research lab. When bean counters begin to question some bizarre expenses, AND a tour of executives discover a wacky chem-lab contraption of Sidney's, he's fired. Sidney has had many such downturns, so bounces back. He bamboozles his way back into the lab. Finally, amid some big explosions, he succeeds in inventing a synthetic fabric which won't wear out and never gets dirty. For a brief moment, he's a scientist-savior of the poor -- who will never have to buy clothes again. The moment doesn't last, however. The mill owners realize that such a fabric would put them out of business, so they're out to silence Sidney by buying up (and forgetting) his secret formula. The mill workers are out to get Sidney too, because they would lose their jobs if no one had to buy clothes anymore.
A wild chase ensues. Sidney is finally cornered and the mob descends upon him. He is saved at the last minute when it's discovered that his miracle polymer is unstable. It breaks down after awhile, becoming as fragile as tissue paper. The mill owners are happy. The mill workers are happy. Another failure for Sidney. Yet, as he leaves the mill -- fired yet at again -- he smiles a knowing grin. He thinks he's figured out what went wrong.
Why is this movie fun?
Lots of reasons. For one, it stars Alec Guiness -- who goes on to many big movie roles, including fame as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. He did MIWS back when he was in his mid 30s. The whole script is a hoot with lots of little skits, gags and turned tables. This is one of Ealing Studios' best comedies. AND, how many good sci-fi comedies are there?
The individual skits are fun by themselves, but they're also well connected and paced quickly. I got a good laugh out of the little girl helping Sidney escape from the unionman's basement. The mill owners office fight scene is classic comedy. The climactic chase scene is a riot. It's set up as the usual monster-chase, set in the dark of night. But, instead of the angry mob chasing a dark monster, they're chasing good-guy Sidney in this luminously white suit. Quite the fun swap.
Cold War Angle
There really isn't one. That, in itself, is refreshing.
Even though MIWS is a comedy, it pokes seriously at capitalism's need for goods to wear out. Factories need goods to fail in order to sell replacement goods. Workers need goods to fail in order to keep their jobs replacing them. Even ancillary folks, like the old washer woman, need good to fail (get dirty) so that she can have a job. Sidney's indestructible, impervious fabric threatens to ruin a whole economic sector -- all by being TOO good. The whole movie's plot, in which the Too Good is suppressed by The Establishment (in this case, both Capital AND Labor), plays out the conspiracy theory which never seems to grow old: Big Business Squashes Wonder Products which would otherwise have been a boon to the common man. Even one of the peripheral mill worker characters refers to such things suppressed wonders as "...that automobile which can run on just water, with a pinch of something or other in the tank..." In MIWS, having Labor be just as up-in-arms as Big Business is a fun (and pointed) twist. The common man might not really benefit as much as he imagines.
The Man in the White Suit is a rather off-the-beaten-path B-movie. It's a very well done B-movie, though. Well worth the effort. Also, listen to the musical score. The Philharmonia Orchestra do a great job throughout the movie.