Should I Watch..? 'The Ipcress File'
What's the big deal?
The Ipcress File is a spy thriller film released in 1965 and was based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Len Deighton. The film is the first in a series to feature Deighton's unnamed narrator, being given the name Harry Palmer for the film. The film sees Palmer working alongside Ministry of Defence officials in order to track down a kidnapped scientist, suspected of being part of a so-called 'brain drain'. The film stars Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman and Sue Lloyd and was directed by Sidney J. Furie. The film was seen as an antidote to the hugely successful series of James Bond films, still in its infancy at the time, and was largely set in a grim London with little of the glamour or action that typified 007's adventures. Despite a mixed reaction from critics at the time, it has since come to be regarded as a classic and one of the best films Britain has ever produced. The film also shares a surprising amount of DNA with the Bond films with producer Harry Saltzman and set designer Ken Adam among the crew.
What's it about?
Harry Palmer, a sergeant in the British Army with a somewhat chequered past, is contacted by his superior Colonel Ross, calling him from his surveillance operation and informs him that he's being transferred to a unit under the command of Major Dalby. Dalby's section has been tasked with locating the British scientist Dr Radcliffe who has been kidnapped from a train he was on while his security was being murdered. Despite Dalby's no-nonsense approach, Palmer works well alongside others in Dalby's unit like fellow officer Jock Carswell and agent Jean Courtney.
Dalby believes that their prime suspect is Eric Grantby - codenamed Bluejay - and his unknown right-hand-man, known as Housemartin. Palmer soon tracks Grantby down and confronts him but is kept at bay by Housemartin. Following a hunch to a nearby rundown factory, Palmer believes he has located Dr Radcliffe but all he discovers is a small piece of inaudible audio tape labelled 'Ipcress'...
Sidney J. Furie
Bill Canaway & James Doran*
Release Date (UK)
18th March, 1965
PG (2005 re-rating)
What's to like?
If the intention was to create an anti-Bond then there's no doubt they succeeded with The Ipcress File which is possibly the grimmest film Caine has ever appeared in, with the notable exception of Get Carter. The film is set in a world of monochrome, despite being filmed in colour, but at least it matches the film's narrative which features more shades of grey than any of EL James'... books, I guess. The only exception is Caine who is wonderfully magnetic as Palmer, whose unflappable manner and wit shine through like the front of a train in a tunnel. Everything he does, whether it's making breakfast or chasing baddies, gives you the impression that this is a bad man trying to make peace with the bad things he's done.
Despite the grim tone of the film, there is much to admire. Unlike some of Bond's sillier outings, this feels much more like a proper spy film in the same vein as From Russia With Love with double-crossing and narrative being the order of the day, instead of bombastic action and a quickie for the hero. The film's stark soundtrack by John Barry (another refugee from the Bond series) feels stripped back and raw, again reminiscent of Get Carter. But what I really loved was the direction by Furie who plays with expectation by shooting objects out of focus in the foreground while directing our attention to a character talking in the background or having conversations between characters, one of whom is hidden completely behind a door. It puts off guard and makes you concentrate on the film, afraid to miss anything. For a film more than fifty years old, it's impressive stuff.
- The Palmer character is depicted as being quite proficient in the kitchen but sadly, Caine wasn't up to the task. Whenever you sees Palmer's hands breaking eggs or chopping vegetables, it's actually the hands of Len Deighton - the author of the novel the film is based on.
- Palmer is widely considered to be the first action hero in a film to wear glasses. Caine, who is myopic in real life, chose to wear glasses because he felt the film might be the first in a series and wanted a way to remove himself from the character to avoid typecasting. He would keep the glasses and re-use them for his appearance in Austin Powers In Goldmember.
- Saltzman and Furie had several disagreements over the film with Saltzman claiming that Furie was actually fired as director and barred from the editing room, leaving editor Peter Hunt to direct the picture instead although Hunt has denied this. Saltzman even stole Furie's BAFTA award for Best Film from him!
What's not to like?
As unfair as it may be but I'm going to do what many critics at the time did and compare this to the then-recent Bond release, Goldfinger. I say it's unfair because, to me, that Bond film is as good as the series ever got. It laid the template for every single Bond film that came after it right up until Casino Royale in 2006. You think of a Bond theme, it's Goldfinger or a Bond car and it's that beautiful DB5 in the Swiss Alps or a henchman and it's probably gonna be Oddjob. But more than that, the film is an escapist adventure that largely dispensed with Fleming's novel and became an over-the-top theatrical sensation. By contrast, The Ipcress File feels too grounded in reality. Even the camera goes out of focus when Palmer isn't wearing his distinctive glasses.
That sounds as if I didn't enjoy this film and that's not accurate. I did enjoy this throwback to the Swinging Sixties, even if the swinging appeared to take place far away from the set. Unfortunately, the film can't quite get to the finishing line without stumbling into difficulties. The final third feels much more familiar to Bond's world (especially considering how closely the plot mirrors that of On Her Majesty's Secret Service four years after this) and worse still, the plot seemed to wrap itself up too quickly. I hate it when characters reach conclusions before we do and while the identity of the baddie isn't really in doubt, you are left feeling a bit stupid because you can't work out how Harry reached his conclusions.
Should I watch it?
The Ipcress File stands up well after all this time, being a tense and straight-forward spy thriller with twists and turns aplenty and a career-making performance from Caine in arguably his most famous role. It's not a globe-trotting spy adventure and it lacks much of the spectacular action that was then coming to define the Bond films but it's an unfussy, unfiltered experience that feels more plausible than any of the Bond films that came after it.
Great For: spectacle wearers, Caine's career, anyone who hates Bond films
Not So Great For: ADHD sufferers, action fans, anyone who hasn't read Deighton's books
What else should I watch?
Caine's instincts about the character were right as Palmer would appear in two more movies in the Sixties. Funeral In Berlin would use the talents of another Bond staple, director Guy Hamilton, and sees Palmer investigate defections at the Berlin Wall while the third film Billion Dollar Brain saw another change of director in the unlikely form of Ken Russell. Despite the muted reaction to these films, the character would blast out of retirement in two made-for-TV films in the mid-Nineties - Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In St Petersburg. So far, Caine has (perhaps wisely) declined to reprise the role any more.
Spy films and the Sixties go together as well as John Wayne and westerns. The decade saw an global explosion of interest in espionage, led of course by Sean Connery as 007 in Dr No in 1962. Other examples include The Manchurian Candidate, Our Man Flint, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and numerous features based around the popular TV show The Man From UNCLE like The Karate Killers. But why would you need an alternative to the Bond films, especially when the early ones in the Sixties were the best ones?
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox