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Records of Material Objects in the Cinema #12: Alec Guinness' White Suit

A witty clothing detail in Alexander Mackendrick's _The Man in the White Suit_ (1951).

And, of course, there’s the question of dyeing” —Sidney Stratton

Few candidates could be more obvious for this column than Alexander Mackendrick’s The Man in the White Suit (1951), for the film’s narrative itself is a record of the eponymous material object in time. When wacko scientist Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness) invents a super-fabric that could be neither tarnished nor torn, he brings home the wrath of both the board of directors and the laborers of the company he is working for. Taking Stratton’s brainchild to the market would mean people will not buy new clothing for the rest of their lives. For the executives this implies a stock price collapse and for the workers, no more livelihood. So they pursue the only logical course of action: chase Sidney down London streets at night before he gets to the press. As all these folks dressed in black—the laborers and the executives—go after the scientist in glowing white, the film starts literally, and comically, staging a twisted philosophy of science. The Man in the White Suit is partly a misguided lament about the purity of science being corrupt by politics, but it is also a deliriously realized reminder that what we get as science, in itself, is inflected by and obligated to the politics surrounding it. 

Fine sequence from a very funny movie! Although, I agree much more with the later part of this sentence than the former: “The Man in the White Suit is partly a misguided lament about the purity of science being corrupt by politics, but it is also a deliriously realized reminder that what we get as science, in itself, is inflected by and obligated to the politics surrounding it.”
Yes, incredible work by Douglas Slocombe! We should also not forget the re-appearance of such a suit in Stuart Gordon’s (verging on racist) “The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit,” where a single glowing white suit takes on a representation of socialism (over other subtextual themes of the original Ray Bradbury source material) as it’s owned by four impoverished Hispanics in the outskirt neighborhoods of Los Angeles. There is an interesting approach towards the photography of the suit, as Mac Ahlberg shoots the glowing suit in color, ending with it shifting colors in the end. It would be fascinating to view stills of these two films juxtaposed to each other!

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