MACKENDRICK, ALEXANDER (1912-1992). One of the most talented British directors, Alexander Mackendrick's film output was limited, with a number of aborted projects. Virtually all of his films are worthy of repeat viewings. Born in the United States to Scottish parents, Mackendrick developed his filmmaking skills working on propaganda shorts for the Ministry of Information during World War II before joining Ealing as a screenwriter and, subsequently, as a director of five films for the studio, beginning with the comedy Whisky Galore! (1949). This film established Mackendrick's ability to subvert expectations and present a less comfortable view of communal life in Britain than most other films from Ealing. The Man in the White Suit* (1951) encapsulates his non-sentimental worldview with its critique of both unions and employers while refusing to sentimentalize his protagonist.
The difference between the general perception of the “warm-hearted Ealing ethos” and Mackendrick's films is most apparent in his final film for the studio, The Ladykillers* (1955), a masterpiece depicting the subjugation of Alec Guinness's* gang to the Victorian world of Mrs. Wilberforce and her lopsided house in St. Pancras. After this film, Mackendrick left England for Hollywood and his greatest film, the film noir masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957), which demonstrated not only that Tony Curtis could act, but also provided Burt Lancaster with one of his greatest roles as J. J. Hunsecker, the sadistically powerful gossip columnist with the ability to destroy careers. Unfortunately, this film, with its clear resonance to the pernicious effects of the blacklist and the careerdestroying activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the 1950s, was not a commercial success and it was some years before it was recognized as a masterpiece.
As the Sweet Smell of Success did not provide the necessary fillip for Mackendrick's career in the tough Hollywood market, he returned to Britain only to discover that things were not any better. He only completed three more films