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Sweet smell of skill

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 6, 2009

Except for The Ladykillers, a black comedy, his Ealing films are accomplished small-scale satires. Whisky Galore! (originally released in this country as Tight Little Island) is set on an island in the Hebrides left whisky-less during wartime. When a ship bearing cases of the precious stuff founders and is wrecked in the fog, the parched, resourceful islanders outfox the dogged, unimaginative captain of the Home Guard (Basil Radford, that perennial embodiment of English conservatism) to pilfer the abandoned cargo. The image of the cockeyed ship in the near distance, glimpsed from shore, is the film's comic emblem. The Maggie (a/k/a High and Dry) is, as Pauline Kael points out, an Eisenhower-era parable of the American in post-war Europe — insistent, complaining, brimming with new-world efficiency, but in the film's vision ultimately apt to throw up his hands and do the right thing. (The movie would make a fine double bill with that later portrait of corporate American thinking seduced by Scottish charm, Bill Forsyth's Local Hero.)

The most inspired of Mackendrick's Ealings is THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (1951; January 9). Alec Guinness (also the star of The Ladykillers), contributing one of his most brilliant portraits of British eccentricity, plays Sidney Stratton, a scientist who attaches himself to one textile mill after another in an attempt to develop his formula for a clothing material that repels dirt and can't be worn out. The laboratory scenes, in which hard-hatted laborers await the inevitable explosions of beakers of white liquid that bubble to a Latin American beat (the picture yielded a single called "The White Suit Samba"), are tender parodies of every mad-scientist scene from the Universal Studios horror films of the '30s. But the satire is social and political: when Sidney appears to have perfected his formula — and Guinness begins to rush through the film in a luminous white suit — management and labor form an uneasy alliance to suppress it. This wonderful movie features an irresistible performance by Joan Greenwood as the daughter of one textile industrialist (Cecil Parker) and fiancûe of another (Michael Gough) who falls for Sidney. (So does the fervent socialist millworker, Bertha, played by Vida Hope; she offers him her savings, but the single-minded scientist — the genius as prize fool — doesn't even notice the romantic impulse behind her gesture.) You can also see Greenwood among the islanders in Whisky Galore!, in which she piles a delicate brogue on top of her trademark lispy purr and her hair is shot (by Gerald Gibbs) so that it seems to have stars caught in it. What a camera subject she is, with those huge white teeth set in a mandarin face that seems to be lit from within — and what a sure touch Mackendrick has with his actors.

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