The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a long movie and one worth seeing. Its subject, the great Madison Avenue of high-pressure public relations, is tricky and almost impossible to describe without loading the dice. Passing up most of the opportunities for cute, crude humor, the movie makes a skillful attempt to give a straight treatment to Madison Avenue and its progeny.
The straightforwardness of the approach shows up best in the main characters. As individuals, none of them is a caricature. It would not be hard to use Sloan Wilson's novel only to add to the Hollywood legion of tired executives and bright, singleminded young men. But the man in the grey flannel suit is not a simple animal, and it is largely to the credit of writer-director Nunally Johnson that this fact is made clear.
Johnson's script is a slick, competent job. While the scenario is complex and maybe too long, it makes effective use of flashbacks to fill in the war career of the man in the grey flannel suit. The flashbacks show how he killed seventeen men in the war, and--more convincingly--how he fell in love with an Italian girl in Rome. Returning home, he has a new attitude toward himself and the public relations job which he soon takes. Remaining self-consistent, the action builds up to a series of crucial scenes. If some of the early parts of the film are tedious, they justify these scenes and make them real. When the young executive's boss humbles himself before his daughter and his employee, and when the man himself does so before his wife, the words they use have meaning.
The less successful moments of the movie come when the characters attempt to generalize too quickly. Their generalizations about security--those that don't come out of the action itself--and particularly the tycoon's remarks about success are mostly vacuous.
Fortunately the characters spend little time making speeches. Gregory Peck as the man in the gray flannel suit, Jennifer Jones as his wife, and Fredric March as the tycoon all do a great deal for their roles. Peck's is the toughest part. He gives a more than adequate performance as a man who acts decisively and honestly out of a strong self-respect--which is what his boss most lacks--without being especially superficial. Jennifer Jones and Fredric March skillfully manage dramatic scenes which in other hands might invite disaster. With scarcely an exception, the minor characters--like an elevator man whom Peck had known in Italy--are convincingly portrayed. In the small role of the girl he met there, Marisa Pavan is remarkable.
In spite of its length and the slickness that sometimes makes it too neat, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit is a good movie. It deals with Madison Avenue squarely and in its own terms; so that what the movie "says" has meaning for its subject. Once Gregory Peck is first shown on his commuter's train, the action devolops consistently out of itself, and the pleas for some kind of honesty or simplicity have a meaning for the people from whom they come.