Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Writers: Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and Alexander Mackendrick, based on a play by MacDougall
Stars: Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker, Michael Gough, Vida Hope
The Story: A clever inventor in a dreary mill town creates the world’s most perfect fabric, which never wears out or gets dirty, but soon the bosses and labor are united in an attempt to squelch the invention before it can ruin their livelihoods. He goes on the run, but the sample suit he’s made stands out like a light bulb.
How it Came to be Underrated: This movie, The Ladykillers, and especially Sweet Smell of Success should have made Mackendrick a permanent house-hold name, but his movies remain cult-hits, known mostly to film buffs.
Why It’s Great:
- Guinness’s brilliant and wholly believable performance is the polar opposite of the “coldly logical scientist” stereotype. Instead, he’s touchingly sensitive, desperate for society’s approval, but only on his own naïve terms. The moment when he finally realizes how much unintentional suffering his invention would cause is subtly devastating.
- It’s a funny movie, but there aren’t actually any jokes, per se. It’s certainly satirical, and it’s structured like a zippy screwball farce, but everybody plays it straight, and the movie has a lot of serious things to say about the ironic dual-edged sword of “progress”. When Guinness goes on the run, only children help him. They’re the only ones to whom the future is worth more than the past.
- But the fable plays differently today. At the time, opposition to the labor-saving properties of synthetic materials seemed backward and misguided, but today we would ask, “what chemicals are in it? Are they carcinogenic? Are these resources as renewable as old fashioned wool and cotton?” In retrospect, the faith-in-science ‘50s seem like a strange mini-enlightenment, and our new distrust-of-science era (on both sides of the political divide, albeit for different reasons) is in some ways a romantic revival.
- After his American career trailed off, Mackendrick became a legendary filmmaking instructor, and I’ll spend some time later this week working through the list of rules that commenter “J.S.” unearthed in the comments last week, so stay tuned for that. Many of his rules are about how to trim down and speed up a story. This 85-minute-wonder is a beautiful example
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Guinness triggered another manhunt in The Lavender Hill Mob. He got to play another unrecognized genius (at least in his own mind) in The Horse’s Mouth.
How Available Is It?: Netflix has it on Watch Instantly but not on DVD. Luckily the Watch Instantly print is beautiful.