Sidney Stratton (Guinness) is a brilliant but amoral and virtually unemployable research chemist on the verge of perfecting an everlasting artificial fiber, one that never gets dirty and never wears out. As the story begins, Sidney is employed at Corland Textile Mills, but is sacked when its president, Michael Corland (Michael Gough) is horrified to learn of Sidney GBP 4,000 expenditures on unauthorized laboratory equipment. Later, he goes to work at Birnley Mill, accidentally becoming an unpaid research assistant, but which allows him access to their superior laboratory. There he has his big breakthrough.
The fiber is something indeed. Conventional shears can't cut through it, so a single white suit (it can't absorb dyes) is fashioned, its pattern cut using a blowtorch. Dirt slides right off it, and because of radioactive ingredients, it exudes a slight glow, like the clothes later worn by the residents of Krypton in the 1978 Superman.
Only then does everyone - except Sidney - comprehend the ramifications of the stupendous invention. Once enough clothes using this new fiber are manufactured, the textile mills will become obsolete. Industry patriarch Sir John Kierlaw (ancient-looking Ernest Thesiger) supervises efforts by Conrad and Sidney's current boss, company president Alan Birnley (Cecil Parker) to pay off the eccentric inventor and suppress the fiber's dissemination. Meanwhile, the trade unions, particularly shop steward Bertha (Vida Hope) and Harry (Duncan Lamont) and others, realize they'll soon be out of work if the fiber is put into production.
For his part, Sidney is concerned only with "progress," its impact on management and trade unions be damned. In this respect, The Man in the White Suit is rather fascinating. The movie audience in the first-half of the picture is in Sidney's corner: we want him to succeed. The concerns of greedy textile executives and didactic labor union complaints at first seem trivial and self-centered until near the end, when Sidney encounters an elderly, working-class lady who asks, "What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?" How is she to make a living?
Sidney's general lack of empathy is not far removed from Dr. Death, the subject of Errol Morris's brilliant 1999 documentary about a self-styled execution technician, who strived for more efficient and supposedly humane ways to carry out capital punishments of condemned criminals. Buried in his "work," he's amoral (as opposed to immoral) about the consequences of his innovations; he's only interested in pleasing himself with his cleverness. Just like Sidney.
Of course, in early 1950s terms, the seemingly harmless if glowing white suit is also drawing parallels to the dangers of nuclear innovation, of scientists lost in their fascination with creating atomic and nuclear bombs without carefully considering how they might be used.
And yet The Man in the White Suit is so drolly entertaining it's only after it's over that one becomes completely aware of its depth. Guinness, for one, creates a unique character, drawing many of his expressions and even some of the ways his body moves from comic Stan Laurel, but with a fiery curiosity and eccentricity more like the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. (Did actor Brett Spiner, in turn, partly base that character on elements of Guinness's character? Could be.)
As with other Ealing comedies of this period, the superb supporting cast delight with their moderately broad characterizations. Michael Gough and Cecil Parker could expertly play, respectively, conniving and pompous company heads in their sleep, but it's also great to see the less well-known Vida Hope personifying the classic ‘50s British shop steward, Miles Malleson (sans toupee) as a bemused tailor, among others.
Playing Sidney's love interest, caught in a kind of triangle with Gough's character, is the uniquely talented Joan Greenwood, whose exquisitely enunciated raspy voice is sexy indeed. Her own eccentric career took many strange turns and she never became more than a highly-sought character actress, but in The Man in the White Suit she really sparkles.
Video & Audio
? Sourcing an earlier 2K restoration, the black-and-white, 1.37:1 standard size The Man in the White Suit looks very good, slightly soft here and there but generally impressive. The DTS-HD 2.0 Master Audio (mono) is likewise fine. Optional English subtitles are provided on this region "A" disc.
Supplements include a trailer and audio commentary by film historian Dean Brandum, but the real treat here is a 14-minute featurette, "Revisiting The Man in the White Suit," which features interviews with director Stephen Frears (who now looks like Duncan Lamont!), and film historians Ian Christie and Richard Dacre, who all make interesting observations about the film.
Delightful, The Man in the White Suit is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.