The Man in the White Suit is playing this week at Film Forum, and what a joy it is. First and foremost, we get the young Alec Guinness--graceful and spritelike, handsome enough but not too handsome, with a deadpan manner that could rival the Peter Sellers of Being There and an occasional tentative smile that could melt ice. From the minute he appears onscreen, he stands out from all the other gray postwar British (most of them industrialists and factory employees), even though he is not yet wearing his glow-in-the-dark white suit.
Then there is Joan Greenwood as the love-interest, the daughter of the textile industrialist at whose lab Guinness, an eccentric, impractical genius, secretly develops the undamageable white material. Greenwood is one of those British actresses who have no equivalent on the American scene. Her sulky pale beauty is only a part of her charm; most of it comes from her inimitable voice, with its deep-throated huskiness and its tiny speech impediment--more a purr than a lisp, I would say, but something that in any case makes every line her own.
The supporting cast is terrific, too, and the plot and script are hilarious, pitting labor against capital and both against the scientific genius who threatens to upend the entire textile industry. I even loved the sound effects: the musical notes that emerge from Guinness's bubbling beakers, the explosions that wrack his unsuccessful experiments, and the silences that accompany his successful ones are all part of an engaging soundtrack that glowingly fits this glorious black-and-white print. The movie was made by Ealing Studios in 1951, proving once again (as if proof were needed) that there is no such thing as progress in the arts.