Rushes / Beneath the surface

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There are stronger ways of putting it, but suffice to say that many admirers of the work of the director Alexander (Sandy) Mackendrick found his recent obits insufficiently appreciative - not to mention lacking in understanding of a canon that stretched from such sly Ealing perennials as Whisky Galore, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit to the urban sourness of The Sweet Smell of Success, a film as completely, classically American as the Ealing hits were completely, classically British.

Phillip Kemp, Mackendrick's biographer, offers a reason for the underestimation. 'Sandy's films are so lucid, so easy to enjoy that one can enjoy them on the superficial level and ignore what's going on below the surface.

'The Ealing comedies are lumped together under 'cosy', but the films actually take the Ealing formula and subvert it to say something dark and twisted.

'Work like The Man in the White Suit takes on snobbery, class and capitalism. Sandy has a wonderful phrase for what he did: 'Satire is the snarl behind the grin.' '

Kemp's biography, Lethal Innocence, also challenges the notion that the director's decampment to Hollywood saw the death of his creativity - 'Sweet Smell shows that his range was potentially enormous - he could have directed anything' - although he acknowledges that Ealing's indulgent approach to the perfectionist Mackendrick's going over budget and over time was not the best preparation for dealing with movie moguls fixated on the bottom line.

Mackendrick had a sneaking fondness for fictional monsters (see Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell), but found it difficult to cope with the monsters who ran the studios. He was 'removed' from The Devil's Disciple and The Guns of Navarone, and when the studio cut the heart out of his High Wind in Jamaica, it also cut the heart out of the man who had waited years to shoot his dream project. The making of his final film, the Tony Curtis comedy Don't Make Waves, so sickened him, he once told Kemp, that he wanted to locate every copy and burn the lot. Which, Kemp says, explains his switch to teaching film: 'He said, 'Okay, I've had the movies. Screw them. I'm out.' '

In fact, Mackendrick's life might be said to illustrate his favourite theme, the struggle between innocence and experience. It is telling that in his films, experience, no matter how corrupt, emerges triumphant, a necessary evil.

'In the end he needed a partner,' Kemp says. 'Someone who would be a buffer between him and the money men, the way Merchant operates for Ivory. He was never interested in the money. That cost him. Did he die bitter? No. But he knew there was a potential there that was never realised.'

Today's talk by Hal Hartley at the ICA in London has been cancelled. Fans of the director's deadpan romances can still, however, see a triple-bill of his films (Surviving Desire, Ambition and Theory of Achievement) at the same venue. ICA box office on 071-930 3647