Obituary: Alexander Mackendrick

Alexander Mackendrick, film director, writer: born Boston, Massachusetts 8 September 1912; died Los Angeles 21 December 1993.

THERE is not much in British cinema to stand up to the best of the other leading movie industries, but for a few years in the Forties it produced David Lean's films of Coward and Dickens, Carol Reed's of Greene, Laurence Olivier's of Shakespeare and, gloriously, Ealing comedy.

Michael Balcon, who ran Ealing Studios, was a canny veteran of 20 years of aping and rivalling Hollywood, often with great success. Afer years heading Gaumont-British, he was poached by MGM but the alliance was uneasy, and when fired by them he went to Ealing, whose principal asset had been the comedian George Formby. Formby left not long after the start of the Second World War, and to suit the wartime climate Balcon concentrated on extolling the British way of life. In 1949 he decided that that could best be done with films in the Formby tradition - or at least with the same writers.

Balcon had encouraged the careers of several youngsters, and among the most talented of the directors were Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick, the latter a screenwriter who had made a number of documentary shorts. They began brilliantly in 1949 with Hamer's period comedy of manners Kind Hearts and Coronets, and Mackendrick's Whisky Galore] The latter was taken from a novel by Compton Mackenzie which envisaged the inhabitants of a small Scottish island salvaging a shipwrecked cargo of the gold liquid despite the red-tape restrictions of the militia. It was precise, non-patronising and beautifully played by such Ealing stalwarts as the enchanting, fey Joan Greenwood and Basil Radford, the witty embodiment of stiff-upper-lip.

Mackendrick, Ealing and all the Ealing personnel were on a roll, uniting whimsy and satire of Preston Sturgian quality which is still being imitated to this day. Mackendrick directed and wrote - with John Dighton and Roger Macdougall - the best of all boardroom comedies, The Man in the White Suit (1951), which imagined the consequences of a material which never got dirty or wore out. Alec Guinness played its single-minded inventor, with Greenwood responding to his scientific jargon with a 'What did you say?', embodying wonder and disbelief at the same time.

Mackendrick's next assignment was one of Ealing's serious films, which were reasonably improved from the dire standard of the war years but remained well-meant rather than inspired. Mandy (1952), concerning the efforts to teach a deaf-mute child, was no exception, though it had exceptionally likeable performances by Phyllis Calvert and Jack Hawkins.

Mackendrick returned to comedy with two screenplays penned by William Rose, the American who had written the masterpiece which Ealing had let get away - Genevieve. The Maggie (1954) was about an American businessman (Paul Douglas) who, moving equipment for his new home, is baffled and outwitted in equal measures by the seemingly guileless Scots. The old theme of city acumen versus peasant cunning has seldom been more confidently handled, but Mackendrick and Rose were to have an even greater triumph with The Ladykillers (1955), in which a group of incompetent crooks posed as a string quartet to plan a robbery in the home of a dear little old lady, memorably played by Katie Johnson. The gang included Guinness, Cecil Parker, Peter Sellers (in his first considerable screen role) and Herbert Lom. With Kind Hearts . . . it is the supreme British black comedy, as broad as the latter is subtle but also imperishably funny.

'It's sad that Sandy Mackendrick gave up and went to Hollywood,' Guinness said later. 'He was always intelligent, always had something to say . . . (he) was an enthusiast, who took a strong political line.' It was sad, but inevitable, for the critical and popular acclaim for The Ladykillers did not prevent the collapse of Ealing. There would be some marginal successes for its writers and directors, but none of them started a post-Ealing career so startlingly as Mackendrick. Sweet Smell of Success (1956) is a biting, cynical view of a famous, influential gossip columnist, based on Walter Winchell - who would have been apoplectic to have seen himself thus portrayed. Ernest Lehman wrote it from a story by Clifford Odets, with both Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis doing their best screen work as, respectively, the journalist and his number one hanger-on. Mackendrick's portrait of Manhattan was his own: chilly and unsettling, and one that movies had never shown before.

He seemed to be on the verge of a brilliant Hollywood career, and Lancaster, co-producing and starring with Kirk Douglas, re-engaged him for an excursion into quality, a film of Bernard Shaw's The Devil's Disciple (1959) - which, in the event, was stolen from them by the third-billed Laurence Olivier's bravura General Burgoyne. But the commercial failure - despite wonderful notices - of Sweet Smell of Success worried Lancaster and Douglas, who decided to dispense with Mackendrick's services after three weeks. Guy Hamilton took over and the result, to quote Douglas's memoir, 'could have been much better'.

Mackendrick barely recovered from this setback. He directed three more films, and there is little to say of Sammy Going South (1963), an African adventure made for Balcon, with Edward G. Robinson, or of Don't Make Waves (1967), a marital comedy with Tony Curtis. Mackendrick was content to work in television in Los Angeles, later teaching at the California Institute of Fine Arts. His reputation was secure, and he might have returned to Britain as Hollywood invested in Britain in the Sixties.

But Mackendrick had showed a failure of nerve in his only other film, the Anglo-American A High Wind in Jamaica (1965). Richard Hughes's novel was unusual as a source for a movie, but that should not have worried the man who made The Ladykillers and Sweet Smell of Success. In the book the children remain too self-centred to bother about the evil of the pirates who have kidnapped them. In the film - played by Martin Amis and Deborah Baxter - they are always ready to succumb to the charm of Anthony Quinn's Zorba-like captain.

No matter, perhaps, since five of Mackendrick's films will always be shown, as critics implied in reviewing this year's revival of The Man in the White Suit in the Ealing season at the Barbican Cinema, in London.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

Versace haute couture review

Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

No hope and no jobs in Gaza

So the young risk their lives and run for it
Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

Fashion apps

Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy