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Viewer Guide: The Man in the White Suit and Rabbit Hole

June 15, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Man in the White Suit (1951)

This week’s classic is The Man in the White Suit, the 1951 film noir satire directed by Alexander Mackendrick.

The Man in the White Suit takes its inspiration from the postwar era’s boom in scientific invention, as the vast gains made from wartime technology could now be redirected toward peacetime pursuits. With so much new knowledge available to improve civilian life, what could go wrong? For the ambitious young chemist Sidney Stratton, the answer to that question would seem to have been “everything.” As played by Alec Guinness in one of his standout performances, Sidney is a researcher at the Corland Textile Mill in industrial northern England, where he’s been surreptitiously developing a synthetic fiber of steel-like strength that also repels dirt. Except when his bosses at Corland discover that Sidney’s breakthrough will substantially reduce the demand for new clothing, he’s promptly fired. Re-establishing himself at the rival Birnley Mill, Sidney ingratiates himself as an unpaid researcher, and finally achieves success with his lab test. But the entire industry is now wise to Sidney, and instead of being hailed as a genius, he finds himself running down the streets in the dead of night, his luminous white suit a dead giveaway, leading to some biting observations on free market capitalism.

In addition to Alec Guinness, the wonderful supporting cast of British character actors includes Joan Greenwood as a rebellious mill owner’s daughter who becomes Sidney’s unexpected ally.

Still functioning today as oldest continuous working film studio in the world, London’s Ealing Studios was founded in 1902, but became especially famous for a series of classic British postwar films with its resident star Alec Guinness, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. The screenplay by Roger MacDougall, John Dighton and director Alexander Mackendrick takes potshots in equal measure, with everyone from the elitist ruling class to the socialized proletariat all coming in for their comic knocks. In 1957, director Mackendrick would train his unblinking eye on America and the unscrupulous world of a powerful newspaper columnist with Sweet Smell Of Success.


Rabbit Hole (2010)

This week’s indie is Rabbit Hole, a 2010 drama directed by John Cameron Mitchell.

Adapted by David Lindsay-Abaire from his Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play, Rabbit Hole stars Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart as Becca and Howie Corbett, an upper middle class suburban couple living a catalog-perfect life in a handsome old Long Island house. But it doesn’t take long to discover the terrible personal tragedy that’s the elephant in the room: the accidental death of their four year-old son Danny just eight months earlier, when he was hit by a car while chasing his dog into the street. Becca and Howie are trying to do all the right things to grieve and move on—donating clothes, taking down drawings from the refrigerator, attending group therapy—but deep down both know it’s really not doing much to soften their pain. Howie compulsively watches a video of Danny on his phone, while Becca withdraws into herself, increasingly unable to tolerate anything that irritates her, which often includes her mother Nat, played by Dianne Wiest, and her wayward sister Izzy, played by Tammy Blanchard. Furthermore, secrets are beginning seep into the cracks of the couple’s relationship: Howie starts taking an interest in Gabby, another bereft parent in group therapy played by Sandra Oh, while Becca begins shadowing the teenaged driver who unwittingly hit her son, played by Miles Teller. Although they struggle not to admit it, the couple is clearly tumbling down an emotional rabbit hole, with no idea where it will take them…or what they’ll be like on the other side.

Originating as a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rabbit Hole premiered on Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club in January 2006, featuring a cast that included Cynthia Nixon as Becca, John Slattery as Howie and Tyne Daly as Nat. Directed by Daniel Sullivan, the production garnered five Tony Award nominations, with Cynthia Nixon taking home the year’s Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actress. Initially reluctant to option his play for the movies, Lindsay-Abaire was assured by Nicole Kidman and her producing partners that he would be fully involved with director John Cameron Mitchell in the adaptation process. In opening up the script for film, Lindsay-Abaire was able to expand the story to include scenes only mentioned in the play, including the grief support group and the character of Gabby played by Sandra Oh. Released to positive reviews in 2010, the film earned Nicole Kidman the third Best Actress Oscar nomination of her career.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

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