Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 20, 2005)
As implied by its title, 1956’s The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit focuses on a mild-mannered businessman. Tommy Rath (Gregory Peck) lives with his wife Betsy (Jennifer Jones) and kids. He works in a safe but low-paying job. Financial problems occur and Betsy pressures Tommy to move up in the world. He prefers to behave conservatively, and she blames his lack of “guts” on his experiences in World War II. These pressures bother him, and he inquires about a higher-paying job in advertising.
While he ponders his shift, the movie flashes back to what Tommy did during the War. We see some of his conflicts as well as his affair with Italian girl Maria Montagne (Marisa Pavan). He falls in love with her while he awaits deployment to Asia. On their last night together, she drops a bombshell: she’s pregnant with his child.
After we learn this, the film shifts back to the present and shows Tommy’s job interview. As part of this, he needs to write a quick autobiography. This allows for another war flashback to his combat in the Pacific. The most significant event there occurs when Tommy accidentally kills a fellow soldier with a grenade. Tommy goes a little bonkers when this happens, as he refuses to acknowledge the GI’s demise.
Back in the present, Tommy gets the job at UBC despite – or perhaps because of – his terse autobiography. He starts to work on a big project with “Type A” boss Ralph Hopkins (Frederic March). We get a glimpse of how Tommy’s life might go if he enters the corporate world as Ralph works so much that he rarely deals with his family. We learn that his 18-year-old daughter Susan (Gigi Perreau) is a party girl who dallies with much older cads, and his son Bobby died in combat. The rest of the film follows Tommy’s work with Hopkins, its effect on his family life, and related issues. We also see Hopkins’ issues, especially in regard to his daughter.
My only prior experience with the work of director Nunnally Johnson came from 1957’s Three Faces of Eve. A stodgy social drama, it felt more like a public service announcement than a real feature film.
Because of that, I feared the worst from Flannel, especially since it seemed to take on its own social issues. Happily, it keeps that side of things to a minimum and works better as an exploration of how various elements affect the lives of men.
Granted, it does all this via an odd structure. The film starts with a little about Tommy’s current life and family before it heads to extended war flashbacks. These seem a little premature, as we barely get to know the 1956 Tommy before we learn about the 1945 edition. Still, I guess we know enough, as we see him as conservative, semi-henpecked and not respected by his kids. In other words, he’s a bit of a non-entity, and I suppose the filmmakers thought it best to show a more robust Tommy before we connected too much with the milquetoast one.
Strange structural conceits continue even after the flashbacks finish, however, mostly due to the elements related to Hopkins. Once we get involved with Tommy, the film suddenly splits to tell us more about Hopkins’ life. I suppose this acts as the “cautionary tale” of what Tommy’s life could become, especially since there’s a good connection between him and Hopkins.
However, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie failed to balance the two stories very well. The Tommy material dominates and the Hopkins scenes become somewhat incidental. At more than two and a half hours, Flannel is already plenty long, but I get the impression some material related to Hopkins fell on the cutting room floor. The flick might have worked better if it made the Tommy/Hopkins split more equal and concentrated a little more on the latter.
That said, I find a lot to like in Flannel. I especially appreciate the film’s subtlety. Where it easily could turn melodramatic and overwrought, it stays quiet and calm. Admittedly, one would expect low-key storytelling for a tale with such an unassuming title, but I still find the laid back nature of the flick to be a pleasant surprise. Usually these socially-conscious films from the Fifties go for the easy morals, but Flannel stays true and keeps things restrained.
The cast help matters. Peck was a good choice for Tommy since he plays quiet and calm so well. Despite various provocations, he keeps the character from becoming hysterical or aggressive. He never seems so passive that we can’t accept the World War II Tommy as a leader, but he maintains an icy detachment to the “modern” Tommy that works.
The rest of the cast offer nicely honest performances as well. Toward the end, the movie gets a little screechy, but not to an extreme. It also makes Betsy into a little more of a shrew than I’d like. I do appreciate the chemistry and bond between Peck and March, though. The pair don’t interact a ton, but they show a genuine connection that allows their scenes to prosper. March conveys the paternal elements without mushiness.
That tone remains the best thing about Flannel. It seems like a movie more at home with efforts from the Seventies than those of the Fifties. Except for a little goo at the end, it lays off the sappiness and presents a rich and compelling look at the effect the workplace has on the common man.