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By Daulton Dickey | September 8, 2006

The post World War II landscape saw several new peculiarities dotting the horizon. With the baby boom in full bloom, corporate America grew by leaps and bounds and created the modern businessman. These men, intent on furthering their company’s annual quotient, skewed ethics on a scale never before seen in business. Sacrificing family for business, this new fangled businessman, commonly referred to as ‘the man in the gray flannel suit,’ took American business to new heights, while abandoning a generation of children—kids who would revolt a decade later during the decadent ‘60’s.

Caught between family and work, past and present is Tom Rath (Gregory Peck), in “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” In Nunnally Johnson’s contemplative 1956 drama, Rath is a man who seems burnt out by work. An ad executive in Manhattan, he lives in a nearby suburb and commutes back and forth to work everyday. With his vocation taking up the bulk of his time, Rath has little time for his wife and kids, a precocious bunch with whom he grows more distant by the day.

From here we’re introduced to a bevy of lengthy flashbacks involving Rath’s experiences during the Second World War, focusing on an affair he had with an Italian woman while he was waiting to go to the front. Both past and present collide when Rath, always perceived as the ideal father and consummate businessman, discovers that he fathered a child during the war.

While the film’s plodding and often meandering, the script does manage to keep focused on Rath’s character—ultimately the point of the film. Rath is a quiet, complex character struggling to maintain the familial status quo while working to overcome his own moral ambiguity. Although he is a sympathetic character, the script’s unevenness ultimately serves to work against him. The flashbacks are at times interminable and would have worked better within the framework of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” had they been truncated. Given the nature of this story, they are necessary, but they’re often written so obtusely that they struggle to sustain themselves.

As another reviewer has stated, “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” doesn’t work as well as a film as it does to document a specific time and place: the Manhattan business world in the 1950’s. We’re introduced to a world here that simply does not exist anymore. There are no computers to distract people. No cell phones and email. Just human interaction, and the simplicity of living in a time when everything was changing—for better or worse—and those on the front were either too ambitious or ignorant to note the significance of their progression. As a film, we’re treated to an overly long, sometimes interminable movie that can’t maintain its focus. As for the performances, Peck is Peck; a stiff, stifled actor who only superficially inhabits his character. It worth watching, however, for the moments in which it gets it right. When “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” hits the right notes, it sings like few movies of its time. The problem, of course, is director Nunnally Johnson and crew failed to hit those notes more often.

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