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Viewer Guide: The Man in the White Suit and The Company Men

August 7, 2020 | 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.


The Company Men (2011)

Tonight’s indie is The Company Men, a 2011 drama directed by John Wells.

Meet the executives of Global Transportation Systems: Ben Affleck is Bobby Walker, a 37 year-old hot shot sales executive; Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as CFO Gene McClary; and Chris Cooper plays senior manager Phil Woodward, a longtime GTX employee who started out on the factory floor. They’re all living upwardly mobile lives in handsome suburban McMansions—and in Bobby’s case, complete with a sporty Porsche. But a glance at the cable news headlines reveals it’s early 2008, and the year’s devastating recession is already underway. Wall Street is in a free fall, stockholders are panicking, and jittery GTX staff eye each other warily any time HR Manager Sally Wilcox, played by Maria Bello, enters the room. When the inevitable happens and Bobby finds himself abruptly out of a job, he’s confident it won’t be long before he’s climbing up another corporate ladder. But as his time at an outplacement services office deepens from weeks to months—along with his depression—Bobby has to accept some tough facts about which direction his personal road to recovery will really lead him.

Also featured in supporting roles are Rosemarie DeWitt as Bobby’s patient wife, Craig T. Nelson as GTX’s steely CEO, Eamonn Walker as another struggling job-seeker, and Kevin Costner in a cameo role as Bobby’s sarcastic blue collar brother-in-law.

Director John Wells’ extensive television career includes producing and writing credits for such hit series as E.R., The West Wing and Third Watch, but The Company Men marked his feature film directing debut. Wells’ subsequent theatrical directing credits include August: Osage County, Love and Mercy and Burnt.

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