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January 9 - January 12

Alexander Mackendrick and the Anarchy of Innocence

The multi-faceted career of Alexander Mackendrick (1912-1993) has all too often been reduced to his great success as a master of postwar British comedy, such that even his most celebrated film, Sweet Smell of Success (1957), is seen as an aberration and credited more to Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehmann's acerbic screenplay than Mackendrick's astute direction. Born in Boston and raised in Glasgow, Mackendrick's life— split between two worlds—echoes the polar extremes of his films, which alternate between gentle comedy and subversive satire, sharp neorealism and irreverent fantasy.

After making propaganda films at the Ministry of Information during World War II, Mackendrick landed a job at Ealing Studios, a rising company to which the young director helped bring international renown for the house style of clever yet gently humane comedies. Mackendrick’s first two features, Whisky Galore! (1949) and The Man in the White Suit (1951), remain two of the best and most beloved examples of the Ealing comedy, clever and genteel on the surface while containing a satirical vision of hidebound British ways. Together the films introduce the dominant theme of Mackendrick’s work: the destructive yet essential anarchy of innocence, with its unerring ability to undermine authority. This theme reaches a high point in The Ladykillers (1955), Mackendrick's last Ealing film and the studio's darkest and most popular comedy.

After the success of The Ladykillers, Mackendrick was hired away from Ealing to direct what is still his best-known film, Sweet Smell of Success, a trenchant indictment of the insidious tabloid politics fortified by the 1950s media, and still all too strong today. Although Mackendrick’s career faltered without the supportive structure of the studio, he completed three more features, including his late masterpiece A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). The commercial failure of his last films left Mackendrick out of favor with both British and American film industries and happy to accept his 1969 appointment as dean of the film program at the newly-founded California Institute of the Arts (best known today as CalArts), where he remained an influential instructor and beloved administrator until the end of his life.

The full appreciation of Mackendrick’s oeuvre as a whole—which only began in earnest during the 1970s—has accelerated since his death, a re-evaluation that has found his lesser-known and later films equally rewarding as his acknowledged masterpieces. This belated appreciation no doubt owes a debt to Mackendrick’s classicism, his dedication to well-crafted, character-driven narratives that avoid baroque visual excess in favor of a subtler authorial stamp, the complex emotional and intergenerational dynamics that unite Mackendrick's films, be they funny, disturbing, moving or a heady combination of all three.


Friday January 9 at 7pm

Alec Guinness and Johan GreenwoodThe Man in the White Suit

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, Cecil Parker
UK 1951, 35mm, b/w, 84 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

An important landmark of postwar British cinema, this delightfully zany comedy stars Alec Guinness as a meek lab researcher whose accidental invention of an indestructible fabric earns the ire of the entire textile industry. The remarkable cloth is a wonderful emblem of Mackendrick’s understatedly subversive films and his ability to subtly transform mild-mannered comic formulas into pointed critiques; The Man in the White Suit pokes delicious fun at the absurd notion of planned obsolescence so central to the capitalist system while also skewering postwar England's deep-seated fear of change.

publicity still from the filmThe Ladykillers

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom
UK 1955, 35mm, color, 97 min.
Print courtesty of the British Film Institute

Vividly set amidst the dilapidation of postwar London, Mackendrick's first color film centers on five criminals masquerading as a string ensemble and intent on using their aged landlady as an unwitting accomplice to an elaborate robbery. The innocent and oblivious Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) unwittingly confounds the criminals at every turn, frustrating even their increasingly desperate attempts to do her in. The last of the great Ealing comedies, The Ladykillers is a wonderful example of Mackendrick’s talent at satisfying the studio's standard of polite charm and humor while simultaneously mining a dark strain of biting satire.

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Saturday January 10 at 7pm

burt lancaster and Tony CurtisSweet Smell of Success

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison
US 1957, 35mm, b/w, 96 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Worried that he had been typecast as a comedy director, Mackendrick leapt at the chance to direct Ernest Lehmann and Clifford Odets' famously hard-bitten script about a dangerous megalomaniac newspaper columnist and the unscrupulous publicist who acts as his toady. Burt Lancaster, who was also one of the film’s producers, gives the film its nervous pulse, delivering an unsettling performance as a power hungry media star driven by a frightening instinct to destroy all enemies and protect his younger (and not so innocent) sister at absolutely any cost. Mackendrick’s first American film announced his return to his native land with a breathtakingly authentic and electric vision of New York in the age of Walter Winchell, shaped by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe's genius with noirish shadows and jazzy camera angles. Sweet Smell of Success reveals the nightmare side of Mackendrick's comic dreams, ruthlessly crushing the idea of anarchic innocence that buoys his Ealing comedies.

Claudia CardinaleDon't Make Waves

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Tony Curtis, Claudia Cardinale, Robert Webber
US 1967, 35mm, color, 97 min.
Print from Warner Bros.

An affectionate homage to Los Angeles, Mackendrick's last film offers a sunny dream of mid-1960s Malibu as a small town of surfers, bodybuilders, real estate agents and movie stars. Tony Curtis returns, in a softer version of Sweet Smell's desperate huckster, as a transplanted New York salesman who lands in the romantic comedy landscape of speculative real estate and romance, caught between a radiant Claudia Cardinale as a giddy Italian actress and a tragically beautiful Sharon Tate as a beach blanket beatnik. Mackendrick’s underappreciated satire of California hedonism and the war between the sexes remains one of his broadest and most accessible comedies.

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Sunday January 11 at 3pm

Anthony Quinn on deck of a shipA High Wind in Jamaica

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Gert Fröbe
US/UK 1965, 35mm, color, 104 min.
Print from 20th Century Fox

One of Mackendrick's most ambitious and powerful films, A High Wind in Jamaica is an epic seafaring fable about three English siblings captured by pirates in the Caribbean seas and determined to become permanent members of the crew. A clear departure from Mackendrick's comic forte, this most underrated gem of his career offers an unexpectedly astringent and unflinching vision of childhood as an inspirational yet ultimately selfish force that unsettles the adult world. Mackendrick’s theme of destructive innocence is crystallized in the conflict between the cocksure young stowaways and the salty sea dogs marvelously portrayed by James Coburn and Anthony Quinn, each in their very best character actor modes.

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Sunday January 11 at 7pm

young girlMandy

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Phyllis Calvert, Jack Hawkins, Terence Morgan
UK 1952, 35mm, b/w, 93 min.
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

Mackendrick introduced a new strain of realism into his films with this moving story of a deaf child whose refusal to reach outside her cocoon of silence traumatizes her middle-class parents and threatens to destroy their unstable relationship. The first in Mackendrick's trilogy about precocious and destructive children, Mandy is an absolutely fascinating melding of The Miracle Worker's semi-documentary theater and Brief Encounter's fractured and intensely first person melodrama of marital dissatisfaction.

Sammy Going South

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Edward G. Robinson, Fergus McClelland, Constance Cummings
UK 1963, 35mm, color, 128 min.
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

Mackendrick returns to the idea of childhood's uncanny will to destruction in this adaptation of a novel about a young British boy who bravely sets off alone on a trek to visit family in South Africa after his parents' are killed in Egypt’s 1956 Suez crisis. Neither hapless victim nor sentimentalized child, the boy wanders clear-eyed through a series of encounters that reveal the limited choices of possible adult lives available in the late colonial era – including the false role model offered by Edward G. Robinson as a cutthroat diamond smuggler. Mackendrick himself evocatively described Sammy as “the inward odyssey of a deeply disturbed child, who destroys everything he comes up against.”

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Monday January 12 at 7pm

men surrounded by boxes of whiskyWhisky Galore! (aka Tight Little Island)

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Basil Radford, Joan Greenwood, Jean Cadell
UK 1948, 35mm, b/w, 82 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

A subversive parody of the rousing war film, Mackendrick's beloved comedy is set on a Scottish island in the depths of wartime deprivation, its inhabitants cheered by the wrecking of a whiskey-laden boat off its rocky shore. An unexpected international success that helped put Ealing Studios on the map, Whisky Galore! follows the foiling of all plans to retrieve the ship’s spoils by Captain Paul Waggett, the island’s resident Englishman and commander of its Home Guard. The battle between the insistent islanders and the uptight Englishman transforms the film into a ribald comedy of manners and allows Mackendrick to fashion a tale of unsophisticated innocence rebelling against modern bureaucratic authority. 

shot of london streetThe Maggie

Directed by Alexander Mackendrick.
With Paul Douglas, Alex MacKenzie, James Copeland
UK 1954, 35mm, b/w, 93 min.
Print courtesy of the British Film Institute

The least-seen of Mackendrick’s Ealing pictures, The Maggie tells an unusual story of a culture clash between the Old and New Worlds. Its title is the name of a decrepit Scottish vessel whose wily captain blackmails an American tycoon into using his ramshackle boat to move valuable furniture to an island mansion. Mackendrick's precursor to Local Hero applies an almost anthropological interest in the vestiges of village culture in the postwar world to establish an irresolvable dichotomy between Yankee pragmatism and materialism and the penurious charm and superstitions of the islanders.

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