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The man behind the white suit

ALEXANDER Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit might be a film of a certain vintage, but it feels as fresh out of the box as the iPad mini.

mischief: The Man in the White Suit is a comedy with a sharp critique that was typical of its enigmatic director Alexander Mackendrick, below left.
mischief: The Man in the White Suit is a comedy with a sharp critique that was typical of its enigmatic director Alexander Mackendrick, below left.

Restored to mark the centenary of Mackendrick's birth and released in a special-edition DVD this month, the 1951 tale involves an inventor, Sidney Stratton (played by Alec Guinness) who develops a suit that can never get dirty or tear. Fearing this miracle new fabric will destroy businesses and jobs, bosses and unions unite to blacken Stratton's name, and more.

Substitute "cars that run on water" or "free coffee on every high street" for Stratton's fabric and you begin to see what a canny portrait of capitalism Mackendrick crafted.

Canny is a word that suits both Mackendrick, described by Guinness as "a sophisticated, grown-up Peter Pan", and his films, which amounted to just nine in number but include such beloved classics as Whisky Galore! and The Ladykillers besides The Man in the White Suit.

Though Mackendrick has been claimed as a Scottish writer-director he was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on September 8, 1912. His parents, who had emigrated to the States, were Scottish (his father worked in the shipyards in Glasgow as a draughtsman and engineer), as were his grandparents. At the age of seven, after the death of his father in the flu epidemic, "Sandy" was sent back to Glasgow in the care of his grandfather.

He would one day make the return journey, but not before spending enough years in Scotland to mark him, and his complex, mischievous, dry-as-a-temperance-meeting humour, as unmistakably Caledonian. While Boston was the city of his birth, Hillhead High School and Glasgow School of Art were the places where his creativity first began to show itself.

The first outlet for that creativity was in the advertising industry in London. Mackendrick was one of the Mad Men, working for J Walter Thompson, albeit of the British kind. World War Two found him involved in advertising of another sort, making propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. From the ministry and forming his own production company it was on to Ealing and work as a screenwriter on Basil Dearden's period drama Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948). The following year, Ealing Studios gave him the chance to make his own film: a little drop of magic that went by the name of Whisky Galore!

There followed the four other Ealing films that made his name: The Man in the White Suit (for which he was Oscar-nominated for best screenplay); Mandy (1952,) a drama about a deaf girl that was far ahead of its time and a prize-winner at Venice; the steamer comedy The Maggie (1954); and The Ladykillers (1955), in which Alec Guinness and Peter Sellers are among the rogues plotting to use a sweet little old lady to pull off a bank job.

Mackendrick's five Ealing films bought him that return ticket to America, where he continued to direct until 1967, coming back now and again to the UK. He was never to know the same success as during the Ealing years, though Sweet Smell of Success (1957), starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis as a loathsome columnist and a hustling press agent, is now rightly lauded as a classic and, like Mandy, a film that was far ahead of its time in style and tone.

As the film writer David Thomson wrote in a 2005 appreciation of Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success "changed talk on the American screen". All that machie-gun-fast, riffing, naturalistic gabbing in the likes of Goodfellas, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Social Network and countless others have their roots in those Lancaster-Curtis exchanges.

As befits a director who regarded his job as a craft that he was never finished perfecting, Mackendrick began teaching at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1969. His book, On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, is still in print and is a must-have for any new Mackendricks coming up.

Twice married with three sons, Mackendrick died in 1993. Many a newspaper obituary attempted to sum up his particular contribution to film. Was he the eternal outsider, the wandering Scot, the director who was a rebel in his own quiet but important way, a "grown-up Peter Pan" as Guinness said? Was there far more to him than anyone thought, or was he, like his father before him, a craftsman who took a fierce pride in his work? It is testament to the canny Mackendrick's endlessly watchable films that the arguments are going on still.

The Man in the White Suit is released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 19 by Studiocanal.

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