For millions of young "Star Wars" fans, and some not so young, Alec Guinness is the man who played Obi-Wan Kenobi. And that is that. For all they know Guinness only did this in his life: expound on the glories of The Force and get Mark Hamill up to speed with a light saber.
"I shrivel inside each time it's mentioned," Guinness once said of "Star Wars," though the Oscar winner ("The Bridge on the River Kwai") had the advantage of shriveling in economic comfort. The George Lucas saga made him rich, especially by veteran British character actor standards. But to remind yourself what Guinness could accomplish in other, earlier, more glorious realms of his screen life, I direct you to the digitally restored "The Man in the White Suit," the 1951 Ealing Studios classic opening this weekend at the Music Box Theatre.
Director Alexander Mackendrick's film didn't showcase Guinness the way other films did; it's an exquisitely balanced ensemble comedy, 85 minutes of sublime interplay and deft thrusts and parries. But in his portrayal of the driven, borderline-sociopathic research chemist who discovers a formula for fabric that will never wear out, thereby threatening the livelihood of textile workers and imperious industrialists alike, Guinness shines from within, his saucer eyes glowing with blinkered purpose.
At the time of the movie's initial U.S. release, critic Kenneth Tynan wrote of the actor's "inward fanatical glow." Laurence Olivier, Tynan wrote, is the sort of performer who "ransacks the vaults of a part with blow lamp, crowbar and gun powder." By contrast, he argued, "Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination." And "facially, he is akin to what John Locke imagined the mind of a newborn child to be — an unmarked blank, on which circumstances leave their casual trace."
This is what you remember of Guinness, who died in 2000, if you've seen his George Smiley in the TV miniseries adaptation of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy." As much as he loved inhabiting outsize roles with flagrant wigs and dubious teeth, as in David Lean's "Oliver Twist" as Fagin or in "The Ladykillers" with Peter Sellers, Guinness had an instinct for burrowing in and hiding, and letting his voice and that curious, detached smile indicate, subtly, what his man was thinking.
He learned how to act onstage: His first speaking parts in London came in a play called "Queer Cargo," in which he played a Chinese coolie, a French pirate and a British seaman. Then John Gielgud picked him for the Old Vic. Enlisted in the British Navy in 1941, as Tynan wrote in his profile, Guinness was "accidentally" the first man ashore in the invasion of Sicily. "The time of the landing had, unknown to him, been postponed, and he arrived on the beach an hour early, at the helm of a lonely landing craft." Later the young Guinness confronted his admiral with "the curt but ill-advised assertion that such tardiness would never be tolerated in the West End theatre."
Writing in 1952, Tynan asserted that the minimalist upstart in question "is not, and never will be, a star." He was wrong in that particular only. "Star Wars" made him rich. But Ealing gems such as "The Man in the White Suit" trained Guinness for his own peculiar sort of stardom, in our own galaxy, not so far, far away.