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)

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

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices