- The Washington Times - Friday, January 13, 2006

Last week’s revival of “Sweet Smell of Success” at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre was one of several recent reminders of the memorable but curiously deflected career of Alexander Mackendrick. Mr. Mackendrick (1912-1993), a Scottish-born American, had taken a plunge into the American movie industry by signing a contract with the independent production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster in 1956. This followed a decade or so of experience as a contract writer, storyboard artist and director with England’s Ealing Studio, which endeared itself internationally as a specialist in comedy while Mr. Mackendrick was an emerging talent.

The two films he directed at Ealing with Alec Guinness — “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers,” made in 1950 and 1955, respectively — were part of a five-DVD set devoted to Mr. Guinness’ classic vehicles that appeared a few years ago. No collection of the kind could have neglected those two movies without stirring murmurs of discontent. A new set consisting of Ealing landmarks outside the Guinness bloc includes Mr. Mackendrick’s breakthrough comedy of 1949, “Whisky Galore,” released to great success in the United States as “Tight Little Island,” and a less satisfying Scottish beau geste, “The Maggie,” intriguing now because it seems to anticipate aspects of Bill Forsyth’s “Local Hero” by three decades.

The distinctive sardonic charm of “The Ladykillers” was illuminated anew when the Coen brothers botched an updated remake with Tom Hanks in 2004. Last year Faber and Faber quietly published “On Film-making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director,” a posthumous volume devoted to Mr. Mackendrick. It consists of class notes and lecture material derived from the subject’s post-directing career as a dean and teacher at the School of Film and Video at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a small town northwest of Los Angeles.

An original component of the school was the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (established in 1921), which later evolved into something of a Disney satellite and training ground for decades of the studio’s sketch artists and animators. At the end of the 1960s, Chouinard was merged with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to create CalArts, which added degree programs in dance, drama, design, criticism and film/video.

When “Sweet Smell” was released in 1957, many critics regarded Mr. Mackendrick as a promising live-wire comparable to Stanley Kubrick. This was easily justified if you had seen “Ladykillers” and “Sweet Smell” more or less back-to-back in roughly the same time frame you were seeing “The Killing” and “Paths of Glory.”

There was a slight catch: It turned out that Mr. Mackendrick did not qualify as a precocious newcomer. He was in his 40s by the time Hollywood recruited him. Although “Sweet Smell” made an unsavory impact, it was also a notorious box office flop in first run. The title of Mr. Mackendrick’s final feature, “Don’t Make Waves,” turned out to be even more ironic. The film reunited him with Tony Curtis, this time in a romantic farce. “Waves” (1967) is a period piece both inventive and astonishing enough to reward rediscovery, but it didn’t make a splash of the career-advancing kind either.

By the time an ambitious biopic about Mary, Queen of Scots (meant to showcase Genevieve Bujold at that time) was canceled by one of the major studios, Mr. Mackendrick was receptive to the idea of an academic career. To the surprise of many peers, it evidently contented him for the remainder of his professional life. During the next generation, he became a revered figure in the industry despite self-exile in Valencia.

A sense of humor seems to have accompanied Mr. Mackendrick to the academy. Paul Cronin, the editor of “On Film-making,” quotes his subject as follows: “The idea of starting as dean of an art school when you haven’t completed art school yourself seemed too funny to resist.”

After a year of art school in Glasgow, Mr. Mackendrick, initially an aspiring illustrator and cartoonist, had gone to work as a layout artist at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency in London. During World War II, he was involved in documentary and propaganda filmmaking for the British government. At Ealing, he came up through the ranks, beginning as one of the staff writers obliged to do new drafts of unfinished or problematic screenplays within a six-week deadline.

This body of experience produced a methodical, disciplined outlook that must have clashed — in a humorously resistant way — with the start-up mystique of CalArts, where all students were budding artists by definition. Many enrolled in Dean Mackendrick’s courses on “dramatic construction” and “film grammar” probably encountered less than total indulgence for their aspirations as “total filmmakers” — impatient with such groundwork as story structure and systematic preparation before launching into the creation of imagery in a spirit of ecstatic self-expression.

According to Mr. Cronin, Mr. Mackendrick did not draw on his own body of work, as a rule. That may be a pity, since the most readable chapters in the book tend to emphasize lessons and revelations that derive from an Ealing apprenticeship and the pre-prod- uction phases of “Man in the White Suit,” “Ladykillers” and “Sweet Smell.”

A former student and teaching assistant, James Mangold, is currently the director of “Walk the Line.” He recalls the salutary nature of the Mackendrick influence:

“Sandy believed there were certain ‘rules’ that serve as the bedrock of narrative storytelling. … But he encountered many students over the years who felt that stories needed to have something of a magic and unknowable element … and who were resistant to the way he reduced narratives to their nuts and bolts. … Though he liked to explore the work of so-called ‘experimental’ filmmakers, Sandy represented the old guard. He believed there were certain skills that storytellers needed to acquire before flushing their psyches out through their art.”

As a freshman, Mr. Mangold was overwhelmed by the seven pages of notes his teacher returned in response to a “three-page screenplay, cobbled together the night before.” The reciprocal effort compelled him to take every assignment seriously. “I have come to understand that within those seven pages that pulled apart and annihilated my work, Sandy’s lesson was that in order to make something good, real diligence is needed. He was never a 9-to-5 teacher, and we never felt … that he had left his ideas and students behind.”

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