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Film / The Man in the White Suit

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The Man in the White Suit is a 1951 Ealing Studios comedy film, directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, and Cecil Parker. Though not always seen as such, it is also a work of Science Fiction; it revolves around a scientific invention, with many of its consequences logically assessed.

Guinness is Sidney Stratton, an industrial chemist who believes he is on the path to creating a new synthetic fibre that never wears out and cannot be damaged, dirtied or stained. When at last he succeeds, he finds himself on the run (wearing a demonstration suit made from the new fabric), pursued by the vested interests who want Sidney's invention suppressed due to the effect it will have on the existing industry.

This film provides examples of:

  • Clothing Damage: Averted. Sidney's suit is impeccable, resistant to wear and tear. Therein lies the problem for industry and consumerism. This ends up being a subversion, as his revolutionary fibre starts to self-destruct and breakdown after a period of time.
  • The End... Or Is It?: The film ends with Sidney walking off down the street while the owner of the textile mill he worked at reflects with relief that he's no longer a threat. Then Sidney has an inspiration about how to prevent the wonder fabric self-destructing...
  • Gaussian Girl: Particularly noticeable in the seduction scene when the camera cuts back and forth between crystal-clear shots of Sidney and really really fuzzy shots of Daphne.
  • Here We Go Again!: Birnley's closing narration about how the clothing industry can get back to normal after nearly being shaken to its core by Sidney's not-so-indestructible fabric is interrupted by Sidney suddenly having a bolt of inspiration, followed by the familiar sound of his bubbling lab apparatus in the background, suggesting he's about to start the whole process over again...
    Birnley: [voiceover, as he watches a dejected Sidney leave the factory] The crisis is over now. The news of Sidney's failure brought relief to the world.
    Sidney: [as a lab coat-wearing researcher hands him his notes] I see. [trudges off down the road, leafing through the book]
    Birnley: [voiceover] It had been a hard and bitter experience for all of us. But we faced the future with confidence. We have seen the last of Sidney Stratton.
    Sidney: [stops in his tracks; his face lights up] I see! [shuts the book and hurries off, excited]
    Birnley: At least, I hope we've seen the last of him... [the signature bubbling of Sidney's lab equipment fades in]
  • Ludd Was Right: Everyone's overjoyed about Sidney's invention until the implications sink in. If the suit's indestructible, there's no need to replace it, so people will buy much less clothing and won't pay to get them repaired. If it doesn't need to be cleaned, that's the laundry workers out of business as well.
    Landlady: Why can't you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there's no washing to do?
  • Mad Scientist Laboratory: Sidney isn't mad, just a bit eccentric and unworldly, but his bench of bubbling chemicals hints at his oddity and scientific focus early on.
  • Meaningful Appearance: Sidney's notable white suit. On the literal level, it's white because it repels all dirt and stains; symbolically it represents Sidney's moral innocence in a world of division, corruption and compromise. (Daphne remarks that it makes him look like a modern-day knight in shining armour.)
  • Person with the Clothing: Sidney is...
  • Pet the Dog: The angry mob rejoice when Sidney's miracle suit is no more, and he's left with nothing. They then realize he only wanted to make the world a better place, and immediately dress him in a good old fashioned suit.
  • Screen-to-Stage Adaptation: A stage play based on the film directed by Sean Foley and starring Stephen Mangan and Kara Tointon opened at the Theatre Royal, Bath in September 2019 before transferring to the Wyndham's Theatre in London's West End.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Sidney's suit really stands out. in this black & white flick.
  • Sharpened to a Single Atom: It's not emphasized, but it's mentioned in passing in the dialogue about the development of the new material that the threads are, in effect, molecular monofilaments — which causes problems in handling and cutting them. It evidently doesn't occur to any of the characters that this could have other applications (though Sidney does later use them as a reliable rope when escaping from an upper-floor room by climbing down the wall). This may be one of the earliest occurrences of the concept in fiction.
  • Trick Dialogue: Sidney delivers an impassioned speech about why he shouldn't be fired for using company resources on his quest — to the mirror in the men's washroom.