Made by Ealing studios during their lauded run of post-war comedies, The Man in the White Suit showcases star Alec Guiness and director Alexander MacKendrick at the peak of their talents. Guiness plays Sidney Stratton, an inventor whose single-minded pursuit of scientific progress manages to be simultaneously clumsy, pathetic, and noble, with a Keaton-esque sense of emotional restraint. When the managers at the textile mill first realize Sidney has been conducting costly experiments without their knowledge, Sidney’s first impulse is to quietly hide like a schoolboy, too prideful to admit he’s done anything wrong, yet still aware of the consequences. When we next see him making an impassioned speech defending his transgressions in the name of lofty scientific ideals, his audience is revealed to be an empty bathroom.
Sidney wants to make a synthetic fabric so durable that it never wears out and never gets dirty — even weaving it requires a blowtorch. However, his success becomes less cause for celebration than a dire social crises when the powerful mill-owning industrialists realize that if the fabric doesn’t break, no would ever buy a second pair. As he flees the capitalists' attempt to kidnap him, he finds that Labor too wants his hide once they realize no more new clothes means the boot for everyone from factory workers to sheep herders to laundresses.
In today’s tech-savvy dystopia where the potentially liberatory effects of automation translate solely into higher profits for the rich and greater job insecurity for the poor; where planned obsolescence dupes consumers into perpetuating a system of excessive waste in the name of made-up buzzwords like enhanced usability; and where a totally avoidable environmental catastrophe has been nearly pushed beyond the point of return by capitalists afraid of losing a dime, the charming and light-handed satire of The Man in the White Suit might just be too raw to stomach in one swallow. Impressively broad-minded in its critique of British society, the film paints a picture of a world frustratingly corrupted not by some menacing self-interested elites, but by simple human pettiness and stubbornness in the face of change. Like those working class 2016 voters who supported a candidate vehemently opposed to the economic, environmental, and social progress that had left them behind, the villains of The Man in the White Suit are much more alarming and sympathetic for their ordinariness.