PROFILE : Alexander Mackendrick

by Sean McCloy

"The great directors managed to dissolve and disappear into the work. They make other people look good" - Alexander Mackendrick.



Before his death in December 1993, Alexander Mackendrick had long managed to disappear from the movie industry, leading a successful career in teaching film. It’s one of the most notable vanishing acts in the history of cinema.
During the 18 years or so that he was active as a feature director he made just nine films. In such classics as The Ladykillers (1955) and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), he managed to bring out the very best in actors like Alec Guinness and Tony Curtis, and proved himself one of the sharpest observers of both British and American society, all of his work infused with a mordant and sometimes deadly sense of humour.

Mackendrick was born in Boston in 1912 to Scottish immigrant parents. But, when his father tragically died six years later in an influenza epidemic, Mackendrick and his mother returned to Scotland.
His American childhood, short-lived as it was, still seems to have resulted in a certain detached, ironic tone to much of Mackendrick’s work in England. It’s a quality he shares with other ex-pats, gifted with a keen outsider’s eye. Mackendrick’s films come across as a sort of cross between the clinical class-conscious dramas of Joseph Losey and the sharp, funny satire of Richard Lester.
Mackendrick remains best known for his excellent series of Ealing comedies, beginning with Whiskey Galore! (1949) and rounding off with The Ladykillers. Comparing his output at Ealing with other such famous works as Henry Cornelius’ Passport to Pimlico (1949) and Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), it’s clear there was a very different sensibility at work in Mackendrick’s films - a darker sense of humour, more complex. Perhaps only Robert Hamer, director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947) tapped a similar vein.

As a young man, Mackendrick studied at the Glasgow School of Art. Subsequently, he managed to get a job as an art director with an advertising company in London. There he worked with, among others, animator George Pal.
During World War 2, Mackendrick had his first experience of directing, making short propaganda films for the Ministry of Information and the U.S. Psychological Warfare Branch. He also headed a documentary unit which recorded the unification of Rome.
In 1946 Mackendrick landed the job of contract screenwriter at Ealing Studios. The head of Ealing, Michael Balcon, had been around virtually from the start of the film industry in England. One of Balcon’s major contributions to British film was his noticing the extraordinary talent of Alfred Hitchcock as early as the 1920s. He gave Hitchcock his first big break and produced some of his best early films like The Lodger (1927) and The 39 Steps (1935).
In the years that Balcon was in charge of Ealing, he produced some of the best films to come out of Britain. Yet not all would agree. Ken Russell for one has voiced his dislike for the parochialism and quaintness of Ealing’s output. And it is more than possible that Truffaut, when he made his famous sweeping statement about the incompatibility of the terms ‘cinema’ and ‘Britain’, was thinking of Ealing. They were, after all, along with Hammer, the visible products of British cinema in the 1950s.
Balcon’s commitment to making films with a distinctive, English flavour was admirable but it was finally a prime reason for the studio’s closure. Nevertheless, at it’s best, Ealing’s comedies stand head and shoulders above the vast majority of other British comedies, before and after. They also made one of the scariest horror films ever, Dead of Night (1945). Will something like Four Weddings and a Funeral be spoken of in the same breath as The Ladykillers in years to come? I don’t honestly think so.

Among Mackendrick’s non-directing jobs at Ealing was writing some additional dialogue and second unit direction for Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp (1950). But he had already made his directorial debut with Whiskey Galore!, also co-writing the script with Compton Mackenzie upon who’s novel the film was based. It is perhaps the most conformative of Mackendrick’s Ealing comedies, reminiscent of Passport to Pimlico in the gentle fun it pokes at the powers that be.
This is not to deny the wonderful comic scenes in the film, with the whole inhabitants of a remote Scottish island trying to deny all knowledge of a shipwrecked consignment of alcohol during World War 2. Beautifully filmed on location on the island of Barra and flawlessly acted, Whiskey Galore! was one of Ealing’s biggest international hits and instantly made Mackendrick one of the studio’s top directors.
The Man In the White Suit (1951) followed, joining together Mackendrick and Alec Guinness for the first time. Guinness played an innocent, naive scientist who creates a material which is seemingly indestructible and never needs to be washed. However, he doesn’t reckon on the textile company’s hierarchy (personified in Ernest Thesiger’s ageing tycoon), nor on all the workers who would find themselves unemployed.
The Man in the White Suit has much to say about the British class system and mob mentality, done with an assured comic touch which helped gain the film an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
With Mandy (1952), Mackendrick turned to drama with the story of a young girl whose parents try to cope with the discovery that she is deaf. Mackendrick managed to avoid any sentimentality in the subject, crafting a genuinely moving and compassionate film which centred on the attempts at teaching Mandy to communicate. This is paralleled with a breakdown in communication between her parents, who eventually separate.
The director elicited a very strong performance from Mandy Miller as the child, prefiguring his terrific work with children in Sammy Going South (1963) and A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). And there is at least one truly cinematic moment in the film - as Mandy grasps onto the balloon which her teacher has been using in trying to conduct sound vibrations to her, the camera slowly dollies in and the soundtrack lowers to silence. Mandy moves her lips, but no sound comes out. The frustration shows in her face and she runs off to a corner of the classroom. In anguish, she raises a cup and smashes it violently on the floor. Suddenly, a loud scream sounds out. She has made her first sound. It’s a wonderful moment of emotional release.

The Maggie (1954) marked Mackendrick’s return to Scotland and his first collaboration with American screenwriter William Rose, who would later pen The Ladykillers. An old cargo boat is hired to transport furniture to a new holiday home by a rich American. As in Whiskey Galore!, Mackendrick tackled the collision of the old world and the new to fine comic effect.
The following year the director was to round off his stint with Ealing triumphantly with The Ladykillers, surely one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Mackendrick’s black humour was perhaps never put to better purpose than in this hilarious tale, centering on a gang of crooks (featuring Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Herbert Lom) masterminding a heist from an old lady’s house (Katie Johnson). Through a series of beautifully choreographed set pieces, the gang somehow manage to kill themselves all off, leaving old Mrs Wilberforce with all the loot.
The Ladykillers can be seen as a glorious satire of Ealing’s usual portrayal of England - a charming, eccentric world replete with helpful policemen, kind old ladies and quaint railway stations. Some have even seen it as a veiled portrait of Ealing in it’s last days, with dotty Mrs Wilberforce as Balcon and her subsiding house where the pictures never hang straight, as the studio.
The Ladykillers turned out to be the last comedy produced at Ealing Studios. Just a few weeks before the film opened, the studio was sold to the BBC for £300,000. With the closure of Ealing, Mackendrick was quickly snapped up by one of America’s most successful independent film companies of the 1950s, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. He was hired to direct what would be Mackendrick’s most complex, most dynamic and most vital work for the cinema, Sweet Smell of Success.
The 50's has seen a healthy strain of cynicism from some major Hollywood directors, visible in such films as Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), Vincente Minnelle’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), written, as was Sweet Smell of Success, by Clifford Odets. Martin Scorsese , in his recent documentary A Personal Journey Through American Movies viewed Sweet Smell of Success as a key film of the decade, noting the parallel between Burt Lancaster’s all-powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker and Senator McCarthy.
Lancaster gave one of his best performances, but the real revelation was Tony Curtis as Sidney Falco, the opportunistic hanger-on to Hunsecker’s world. Formally considered nothing much more than a pretty boy matinee idol, Curtis’ performance was a transformation that made people sit up and take him seriously.
With two top box office draws, the great James Wong Howe’s Cinematography, one of the most quotable scripts of all time ("Conjugate me a verb, Sidney. To promise -") and a great, rasping jazz score by Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton, Mackendrick moulded a true American classic.
From the brilliant opening title sequence featuring a fleet of newspaper vans with the image of Hunsecker’s all-seeing eyes on their sides, the atmosphere of corruption played against a world of moral uncertainty was ferociously sustained. But the American public stayed away from Sweet Smell of Success. It was just too dark, too savage for the average movie-goer’s sensibility.
Despite the commercial failure of their last collaboration, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster hired Mackendrick again to direct The Devil’s Disciple (1959), George Bernard Shaw’s satire on the American revolution. The movie starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Laurence Olivier. However, after only two weeks Mackendrick was fired. During that time, he had managed to direct all of Olivier’s scenes. In any event, Guy Hamilton was called in to complete the film.
Two years later Mackendrick was to have a similar experience on The Guns of Navarone (1961), fired after a few days location shooting and replaced by J.Lee Thompson.

It wasn’t until 1963 that Mackendrick completed his next feature, Sammy Going South. A young boy who loses his parents in the bombing of Port Said treks 4,000 miles across Africa to relatives in Durban.
Not simply a children's travelogue film, Mackendrick himself described it as "the inward odyssey of a deeply disturbed child, who destroys everybody he comes up against." Certainly, it is the adults who become more damaged from encountering Sammy, notably (in two marvellous supporting performances) Edward G Robinson’s diamond miner and Harry H. Corbett.
The clash of innocence and experience is something which informs all of Mackendricks work. More often than not, it is innocence which triumphs - Mrs. Wilberforce in The Ladykillers; at the end of The Man in the White Suit, Alec Guinness’ fabric may have come apart in the rain, but the look of determination in his face at the end tells us he is unbowed.
Sammy going South treats this theme with great maturity, and it was something which Mackendrick would build on in his next film, A High Wind in Jamaica.
Makcendrick had wanted to adapt Richard Hughes’ novel for some time. The story centered on a group of children, captured and taken on board a pirate ship. But Anthony Quinn’s crew get more than they bargained for. The film steers skilfully from comedy to drama and finally, in the climatic court scene where Quinn faces the death penalty, tragedy.
Orson Welles once said that the greatest theme of Western art was the loss of innocence and it’s hard to think of a film which deals with it in such a complex and unsettling way as A High Wind in Jamaica. This is even more impressive when you consider that 20th Century Fox cut the film by 25%. Along with Spielberg and Truffaut, Mackendrick was one of the best directors of children. But Mackendrick’s approach was much more psychologically complex and certainly not as sentimental as Spielberg can be. Mackendrick’s children possess a deadly innocence that can revert to an almost primitive state if left untended. He would have been an ideal choice to direct Lord of the Flies.
And one can sense a very personal, almost autobiographical element to these films, especially when you consider Mackendrick’s early childhood, his separation from one parent and uprooting to a new country.

Mackendrick returned to America to direct what was to be his last film, Don’t Make Waves (1967). An appealing, likeable satire on California, it starred Tony Curtis, Claudia Carindale and Sharon Tate. And if the final film was a little rough around the edges, one can again point to studio interference (this time MGM).
Mackendrick’s career then became a series of missed opportunities. Planned films included a version of Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play ‘Rhinoceros’, and an ambitious historical film based on the life of Mary Queen of Scots. Both failed to materialise. Mackendrick also did some uncredited direction on the forgotten black comedy Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling so Sad (1967).
Like so many gifted directors (Welles, Peckinpah, Michael Powell), Mackendrick suffered his fair share of knocks from the film industry. But he also had the humour to say that he had treated the industry far worse than it had ever treated him.
However, he was soon to withdraw from the movie business permanently. In 1969, Mackendrick was offered the position of the Dean of the Film and Video School at the California Institute of Arts. He resigned from the post in 1978, but remained an active Institute Fellow and a teacher at the school until shortly before his death.

Mackendrick once described his approach to comedy as "the snarl behind the grin." This is true of most of his films - at first glance they may seem normal, even conventional, but beneath the surface there is something altogether more disturbing. You can see it in Alec Guinness’ toothy, malevolent smile in The Ladykillers, it pervades all of his subversive Ealing films and it is present in his harrowing trilogy of films about childhood. Only in Sweet Smell of Success did the mask drop, laying bare the directors’ darker side for all to see.
His films, songs of innocence and experience, have a rare sophistication and intelligence. He may have believed that a director should "disappear into the work", but Mackendrick directed some of the most distinctive and individual films of their time, the product of a consistent artistic vision. And Alexander Mackendrick can be the only person responsible for that.

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