Alexander Mackendrick - Making waves...
Both the film industries and critical establishments of Britain and America have found Alexander Mackendrick's an uncomfortable talent. A complex and supposedly 'difficult' personality, he vanished prematurely from his place in the front rank of film-making, while his short filmography has still proved too varied and elusive for simple critical pigeon-holing
The subversive ironies of Mackendrick's early British work have been submerged in the mists of affectionate cosiness shrouding Ealing in the popular memory. The harsh edges of pain of his later adventure yarns have been blurred by the sentimental haze attaching to the very notion of 'children's films'. The accuracy and acidity of his American satires have been blithely attributed as the contributions of others. Mackendrick, standing uncomprimisingly outside the British cinema's liberal-humanist tradition, has been underrated.
The contradictions within Mackendrick's cinema are presaged by the very opening of his biography. Although of Scottish parentage and raised in Glasgow, he was born (in 1912) in Boston, Massachusetts. The implied tensions of this divided cultural identity were to prove fruitful and frustrating by turns throughout his career, which began (after Glasgow Art School and a spell in advertising) with a screenwriting assignment at Pinewood and brief experience in European animation studios. When war broke out, Mackendrick was attached to the Ministry of Information's Psychological Warfare Unit, and later headed an Italian documentary crew in Rome.
His post-war co-option into Michael Balcon's Eailing 'family', intially into the art department, was first marked by shared writing credit on an unlikely trio of fautres bearing little relation to his subsequent work. But soon he grasped the opportunity to direct Whisky Galore! (1949), and if the film sold predominantly on its Highland whimsy, Mackendrick was careful to exempt his anti-authoritarian islanders from the sort of political compromises endured by the similarly rebellious Cockney community of Ealing's Passport to Pimlico (1949).
Ealing's Scotsman wouldn't be typed as a regional specialist either, as he next took on the whole British industrial economy with the radical satire of The Man in the White Suit (1951), where Alec Guinness' miracle fabric symbolizes the illusory entwinement of class interests under capitalism - before proving unstable and falling apart! An absurdist comic nightmare about the clash between technology and tradition it may be, but it intriguingly embodies echoes of both Kafka and Marx.
Mandy (1952), the only avowedly 'serious' film of Mackendrick's Ealing quintet, is also the first expression of his abiding fascination with the psychology and revealingly distorted perception of the child. Nonetheless, the director focuses as tightly on the emotional traumas of the parents as he does on the deaf-and-dumb little girl of the title, and he reveals their senses to be almost as numbed as hers.
With The Maggie (1954), Mackendrick ostensibly made his contribution to Ealing's popular 'old crock' cycle which had begun with The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953). But the film brought him together with Ealing's resident American writer, William Rose, and together they explored many of the director's autobiographical contradictions with a cruelly comic yarn of a rich Yank (Paul Douglas) being slowly tormented by the canny crew of an ancient Scots cargo boat that is transporting his furniture.
Rose and Mackendrick teamed up again on the most enduring and best-known of all the Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers (1955), in which the sheer blackness of the concept is barely disguised by the accomplished farce which surrounds it. Mackendrick's critical concern with social structures and his facility with the satirical scalpel had by now, however, attracted American attention, and he went 'home' at the behest of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, independent producers of the Clifford Odets/Ernest Lehman script for Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
From this he distilled the essence of the sour stench of corruption, here emanating from the New York culture of press agents and gossip columnists, with its sadistic power-plays between the owed and the owned. As Burt Lancaster's JJ Hunsecker spits venom from on high, and Tony Curtis' Sidney Falco hustles and grovels below, the single glimmer of humanity rests with JJ's sister, whose sexuality is nevertheless soon reduced to the currency of exploitative exchange. The satire reaches the proportions of disgust.
A second Hecht-Hill-Lancaster project beckoned but the time-honoured rationalization of 'creative differences' explained away Mackendrick's departure from the set of The Devil's Disciple (1959) a fortnight into shooting. It's hardly fanciful to speculate on the crucial importance to Mackendrick of such an ideally 'transatlantic' subject (George Bernard Shaw's view of the American Revolution), or the detrimental effect of the subsequent deep disappointment.
Indeed, some years were to elapse until his next feature; an interim involvement with the planning of The Guns of Navarone (1961) proving fruitless, and a sojourn in American TV failing to fully engage him. When he did return, it was to a post-Ealing Michael Balcon project - a large-scale adventure movie charting the odyssey of an orphaned boy from Cairo to South Africa.
Mackendrick dispels any fears that Sammy Going South (1963) might be a sentimental travelogue with an early sequence in which the boy is responsible for blinding a helpful Arab, and then leaving him to die. The film then goes on to detail the emotional betrayals inherent to 'family life' in the scenes between the boy and the larger-than-life character (Edward G Robinson) he treats as a surrogate father. Throughout, the implication of the inferiority of the 'civilized' perspective to that of the child and the 'primitive' is inescapabale. The incronguous reward for this intelligent precursor of Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), however, was the kiss of death of a Royal Film Performance.
The closely-related follow-up, A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), suffered from the overtly literary bias of contemporary reviewing, being summarily dismissed as 'inferior' to Richard Hughes' classic novel about pirate-captured children. But time has revealed it as a masterpiece of ironic pessimism which inverts every conventional notion of innocence and guilt.
Mackendrick returned to the States for Don't Make Waves (1967), equally reviled for its apparent silliness and lauded for its slashing satire on the California playground's lifestyle and morality. Setting Tony Curtis hustling once more, this time amidst beach bunnies, muscle mean, con-artists and hedonist cranks ('children' all), Mackendrick comes close to the discomfiting no-laughs comic genius of Jerry Lewis, and virtually demands a reassessment of his earlier Ealing material.
Public indifference, however, turned the film into a swan-song. Mackendrick's reputation within the industry as a moody, spiky perfectionist may have been at root, but he was unable to realize long-standing projects like Mary, Queen of Scots or Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and in 1969 accepted the post of Dean at the new California Institute of the Arts. He headed the non-vocational film school for ten years, and is still teaching, unfortunately showing no public inclination to return to an industry which sorely misses his wry and radical eye.