Great Scot

02.02.13

Left: Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white film, 85 minutes. Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), Frank (Patric Doonan), and Bertha (Vida Hope). Right: Alexander Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, 35 mm, black-and-white, 96 minutes. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).


IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early ’60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the ’50s—like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)—and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic connections. When the director resurfaced in the ’60s with two seeming adventure movies that subverted most genre expectations—the surprising, commercially ill-fated Sammy Going South and his haunting, long meditated adaptation of A High Wind in Jamaica—the question of what Mackendrick was really about, and where he might be going next, became even more fascinating. Then, in 1967, came the more than slightly rancid beach comedy Don’t Make Waves—a hopeless project redeemed by the intransigent seriousness with which Mackendrick treated his jerry-built material, right down to the oceanfront bungalow capsizing in a mudslide with most of the cast inside—and after that, silence.

As it turned out the oeuvre would stop there, with the nine features he completed between 1948 and 1967. Mackendrick accepted the job of dean of the film school at the newly opened California Institute of the Arts in 1969; he would stay on for nearly a quarter of a century, until his death in 1993, a revered and evidently sometimes confrontational presence. Now, unexpectedly, we hear from Mackendrick again, with On Film-making (Faber & Faber): not the book he might have chosen to write about the craft of directing, but something perhaps more exciting—an assemblage of his classroom handouts that recreates vividly the atmosphere of his teaching. The students are very much in the room, and you can sense the tensions that must have resulted when their yearning for free-form self-expression came up against Mackendrick’s devotion to imparting the fundamentals of technical knowledge and discipline.

It must indeed have been difficult—if you saw yourself as the next Godard or Dennis Hopper—to be asked to “put aside your hunger for instant gratification and creativity, at least for long enough to understand some basic ideas and practical pieces of advice that you are perfectly entitled to discard later.” Or to be told: “Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. . . . From the very grammar of the sentence structure in which an outline is written, I can sense whether or not the student has got the hang of cinematic narrative progression.” The oldest lesson in the world—that one must first know the rules in order to break them—was to be reiterated many times over: “The truth is I cannot help you explore what is often called Modernism in cinema. This is one reason why I keep referring to ‘movies’ rather than ‘cinema.’ The craft of storytelling is rather un-Modernist. It’s old. Ancient, in fact.” Self-expression must be tempered to the needs of others: “You should assume your audience is always bored.” He covered the walls of his classroom with mottoes such as this: “Student films come in three sizes: Too Long, Much Too Long and Very Much Too Long.”

As teacher, Mackendrick does not expound a personal vision; he rarely talks about his own films, and when he does so it is in the most modest terms. If he gained a reputation early on at Ealing Studios for being gifted at conveying ideas through visual means, it was because “I wasn’t very good at writing dialogue.” When he brings up Sweet Smell of Success, it is to focus—at fascinating length—on the screenwriting genius of Clifford Odets as, by a tortuous process, he shapes a rudimentary episode into the classic 21 Club sequence, that most Shakespearean of movie scenes. What he wants above all to convey is what hard and deliberate work it all is to achieve those effects that on the screen look like spontaneous inspiration. The book amounts to an insistently detailed exhortation to put forth mindful effort into every phase of filmmaking. Consider his note on “the value of listening and watching with real attention and concentration”: “These are not passive activities. . . . Nor are they things that are done well without considerable effort and a good deal of experience.” An obvious observation? As he writes elsewhere, “There is no danger in being obvious if what you are being obvious about is also exciting.”

Far from treating technique as a set of mechanical procedures, he sees it as a means to break through excessively verbal, rational, abstract habits of mind. Cinema precedes language: “To translate certain concepts into cinematic forms comprehensible without words, the student may actually have to unlearn habits of verbal thought and return to patterns that are in some ways more primitive.” To control and direct the power of film requires such a massive and complex effort precisely because the medium is so “richly loaded with sensory, emotional, and intuitive informational data,” working “at a level not necessarily subject to conscious, rational and critical comprehension.”

In such passages Mackendrick begins to suggest the quality of his own films, under whose controlled surfaces and exquisitely lucid story lines a potential for chaos and violence swirls almost palpably. His reasonable and civilized art is profoundly in tune with instinctive forces that can manifest themselves as ecstatic celebration but also as tribal warfare or relentless perseverance in a private mission. It is a recurring feature of Mackendrick’s films that those who seem most harmless—the bedraggled boatman of The Maggie (1954), the sweet, slightly dotty widow of The Ladykillers (1955), the ostensibly innocent children of A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)—prove quite capable of destroying business magnates, professional criminals, and bands of pirates.

In these obscure battles it is often far from obvious where our sympathies are to be enlisted. The Man in the White Suit (1951) is objectively an account of the destruction of an idealistic, otherworldly scientist by the combined forces of the British textile industry, desperate to prevent him from marketing a fabric that doubt they can be read in the troubled currents his films chart with such precision. His parents had eloped to America, but his father, a civil engineer, died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when Mackendrick was six years old. His mother took him back to Scotland but lapsed into alcoholism and later became fanatical about religion. Leaving the Glasgow School of Art without a degree, he spent over a decade in advertising, becoming an art director at J. Walter Thompson. When the war broke out, he found himself working on government projects, most notably for the Psychological Warfare Branch, which sent him to North Africa in 1943 and then to Italy. After the Allies took Rome, Mackendrick briefly oversaw the Italian film industry and produced documentary footage that included the execution of one Fascist official and the death of another at the hands of an angry mob. Returning to London after the war, he was hired as a staff scriptwriter by Ealing Studios, that quintessentially English organization that billed itself “The Studio with the Team Spirit” and that became best known for a brand of comedy at once cozily fanciful and laced with antiauthoritarian satire.

Mackendrick’s first feature, Whisky Galore! (1949), was crucial to the emergence of Ealing, and it remains an immensely satisfying film. Like all Mackendrick’s comedies, it is deeply absorbing but doesn’t provoke a great deal of laughter; the gags are incidental to a deadly serious sort of war, as the inhabitants of a Scottish island band together to thwart an English official from confiscating the cases of whisky that a shipwreck has miraculously tossed up on their shore. Neither the ferocity of the islanders nor the final humiliation of the hapless Englishman are fudged by Mackendrick; the ending is right and fitting but not heartwarming in the usual movie-ish way. Likewise, the film’s visual beauty in no way assuages the real conflict at its heart.

The most underrated of his Ealing comedies, The Maggie, pushes the ferocity almost beyond the point of comedy, as a tenacious boatman fighting for survival triumphs over the American businessman who has mistakenly hired him to transport a valuable cargo. By avoiding any easy resolution in the battle of tradition versus modernity, native versus interloper, Scotland versus America, Mackendrick creates a comic situation that can end only on a note of pain swallowed with as much dignity as possible. Neither cynical nor sentimental, The Maggie laconically and eloquently conveys the sense of cultures finally unable to bridge the distance that separates them. In its more gentle way, it implies levels of cruelty fully up to the high-level urban savagery of Sweet Smell of Success. Mackendrick was a perfectionist who—after making the most of Ealing’s protective environment, which nurtured him as a filmmaker—finally had trouble dealing with the casual ruthlessness of the international film world. He was fired from several important projects, apparently for being stubborn and slow to produce. When he did finally succeed in making his adaptation of Richard Hughes’s 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica, it was taken away from him and cut by a fourth. What survives is still an extraordinary film, of bravura lyricism in its visuals and unyielding harshness in its emotional drama: a great children’s movie about the destructive power of childish innocence, in which, true to his credo, Mackendrick goes beneath the verbal to find a world of “feelings, sensations, intuitions and movement,” a world of direct and terrifying contact. Great teacher that he apparently was, it is impossible not to regret the films he ought to have made. The sustained intelligence and beauty of those we have remains bracing.

Geoffrey O’Brien

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Artforum. Alexander Mackendrick: Filmmaker, Teacher & Theorist. A Centennial Celebration” occurs at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 6.