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Sep 12, 2007

The Man In The White Suit (1951)

In some ways this 1951 Ealing comedy is the first movie about nanotechnology. Sidney Stretton (Alec Guinness) is a genius. He keeps getting thrown out of his jobs in textile mills because he secretly uses their research labs in his great quest. He wants to create cloth that can't be cut, can't be soiled and will last forever. The cloth will be a single molecule, woven into fabric: a 1950s nanotechnology.

After being caught out at the Cortland Mills, run by Michael Cortland (Michael Gough who later played Alfred to Michael Keaton's Batman), he gets a job at the Birnley Mills run by Cecil Parker, whose dishy daughter Daphne is played by Joan Greenwood. Here, by accidentally pretending to be an electron microscope technician, Sidney has his breakthrough and, with Birnley's assistance, creates a white suit of his miracle cloth.

The local mill owners, lead by the fiendish and incredibly ancient Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger who could well have been the role model for Montgomery Burns), try to buy Sidney out to suppress his invention, which will put them out of business. The mill workers unions want to do the same for the same reason. The mill owners, while Birnley is on the phone, hire Daphne to seduce Sidney into complying. She, of course, helps Sidney escape from these fiendish industrialists. He is promptly captured by the union and escapes with the help of a deadpan little girl, only to have both sides chase him through the mill town. This chase is expedited by the fact that the suit is slightly luminous. They finally capture Sidney and...

Anyway, this movie is firstly a delightful comedy. Guinness' Sidney is charmingly gormless, endearingly sneaky and relentless in his pursuit of his goal. Joan Greenwood (who was chosen by Empire magazine as number 63 of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history) is lovely as Daphne, a woman with a mind of her own and a forthright sexiness that communicates well over the half century since this movie was made. Cecil Parker's windbag mill owner is firstly delighted by then bemused by Sidney's discovery and Thesiger is great as the ancient vulture-like capitalist Kierlaw.

On another level, the movie satirises the dynamic between management and workers. Sidney and Daphne are the only unselfish main characters in the movie.Everyone else wants to maintain the status quo. It's also good science fiction, so what more can one want?

(Originally posted Wednesday, February 02, 2005)

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