Starring: Alec Guinness, Dennis Price, Joan Greenwood
Director: Charles Crichton, Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Hamer
This release gathers together The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit and Kind Hearts and Coronets on one Blu-ray box set.
Without wanting to sound like Nigel Farage, it’s all too easy, watching these Ealing comedies, to be lulled into a sense of nostalgia for a time that seems more restful, spacious and picturesque. And yet actually, scratch beneath the surface, and you find a constant strain of complaint about the lack of opportunity in post-war Britain.
Holland, the seemingly dull clerk in The Lavender Hill Mob, stuck in a dead end job on a Victorian-sounding salary, knows that the only way he’ll ever achieve his ambitions is by going outside the law. And in Kind Hearts and Coronets, the forces of repression which hold ordinary folk down are given embodiment in the Gothic gargoyle form of the D’Ascoygne family.
The film which addresses the state of the nation head-on, however, is The Man in the White Suit. Released during 1951, the Festival of Britain year, which was all about the country putting its best foot forward towards a brighter future, the movie looks at how various segments of society react to change in the form of obsessive scientist Sidney Stratton’s “everlasting thread” which threatens to turn the textile industry upside-down.
What’s striking about Alec Guinness’ performance as the saucer-eyed geek is the fine line he treads. It’s a portrayal based not so much on what Stratton is as what he is not – he’s not a particularly nice man or a particularly nasty one, but he is extremely disruptive. Change brings winners and losers, and Stratton, as a representative of change, is an amoral force of nature.
This sense that Stratton should be seen less as a person than as a scientific phenomenon in his own right is underscored by what is perhaps the cleverest and most pleasing touch in the entire movie. The way he goes about from mill to mill, misdirecting funds, assembling his apparatus in out of the way corners – he’s like something out of a biology textbook, a parasite subverting a host for its own ends.
Despite its charming and whimsical surface, The Man in the White Suit is therefore perhaps the bleakest of these three films, these delicate fantasies of rebellion for a generation that had proven its metal in the war and now expected to be given scope to better themselves. They were also, most likely, fantasies of rebellion for the talent working at Ealing, which Stephen Frears, in a brisk 13-minute feature looking at the background to The Man in the White Suit, dubs “the perfect studio for the welfare state”. Among the other extras in an oldish but interesting bio of Dennis Price, the star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, who by the end of his life was reduced to the ignominy of playing comedy butlers in cheapo horror films (he’s in Jess Franco’s Vampyros Lesbos!). There’s also an ancient Thames telly interview with T.E.B. Clarke, scriptwriter of The Lavender Hill Mob. Despite an extremely duff interviewer, Clarke manages to tell a very Ealing-esque anecdote about running a betting ring at Charterhouse and make various modest and intelligent observations about his own work.
The HD restorations on all three films are beautifully sharp and pristine, with Kind Hearts and Coronets emerging the most impressive simply because it has the most sumptuous and atmospheric mise-en-scene.