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Sweet smell of skill

Alexander Mackendrick at the HFA
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 6, 2009

09109_mack_main
THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT: Alec Guinness stars in the most inspired of Mackendrick’s Ealing films.

“Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence” | Harvard Film Archive: January 9-12
Alexander Mackendrick, who's the subject of a tribute at the Harvard Film Archive this weekend, is a somewhat mysterious figure in movie history. Over the course of a nearly 20-year career, he made only nine pictures (all of which are being screened), though he stepped in, uncredited, to direct scenes in several others. The son of Scottish parents, he rose in the industry through a series of delightful comedies he turned out for Britain's famed Ealing Studios, but he was actually born in Boston, his most celebrated movie was the Hollywood film noir Sweet Smell of Success, and he wound up as dean of the film department at the California Institute for the Arts. His stint as an academic lasted longer than his film career; he died in 1993, two and a half decades after releasing his last picture, Don't Make Waves.

The Ealing comedies of the '40s and '50s were famously script-driven, so it's not a surprise to find that Sandy Mackendrick wrote movies before he began directing them. The screenplays of his four Ealing pictures were written by others; yet it would be unfair to say that as a filmmaker he simply served the material he was handed. He has a distinctive, if muted, visual style. He's splendid at evoking atmosphere, whether of scruffy forgotten wharfs (THE MAGGIE; 1954; January 12) and tiny, intimate coastal towns (WHISKY GALORE!; 1949; January 12) or big cities: a fairy-tale-like, latter-day-Dickensian London in THE LADYKILLERS (1955; January 9), a bustling, night-blooming Manhattan, ripe with the rot of moral corruption, in SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957; January 10), both marvelously stylized.

He often makes his points through skillful layered staging and canny camera placement. His preference for medium and long shots to allow the action within the frame to tell the story also tends to underscore the wry tone of the comedies — in the lackadaisical movement of the dilapidated boat in The Maggie, the ancient "puffer" whose third-generation Scots captain (Alex Mackenzie) talks his way into ferrying cargo for an American airline millionaire (Paul Douglas), or in the hilariously grotesque deaths of the thieves in The Ladykillers who are bested by a blissfully unaware landlady (Katie Johnson), a survivor of the Edwardian age they unwisely figure in their scheme to move their stolen money. And because Mackendrick picks and chooses his close-ups, they're often eloquent, like the shot of Mackenzie's face when the skipper learns that the American, fed up with the slow, tortuous journey and with his own unexcitable willfulness and wiliness, has decided to buy the boat out from under him.

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