The Ipcress File Review
Back in 1962 the now-global phenomenon that is the James Bond film franchise kick-started with the movie adaptation of author Ian Fleming’s Dr. No. However, it was also the same year in which fellow spy-thriller writer Len Deighton released his debut spy novel, The IPCRESS File, the first of four books that he completed over the same number of years, all centred on the same ‘unnamed hero’ and his exploits working for the British Intelligence Services (Horse Under Water, Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain). He was the antithesis of Bond, a myopic mac-wearing intelligence expert who generally cracks cases through niggling observation of detail, gut instinct, blind luck and sheer perseverance; and has to fill out countless forms for everything from his handgun to his surveillance operations. He’s not particularly patriotic – after a stint in the army where he had a black market op running on the side, he was given the option of military prison or working for the Government as a spy. He’s the reluctant hero, the lucky underdog – the polar opposite of the charming, for-Queen-and-country super-agent, Bond. The stories themselves were not completely dissimilar – at least Fleming’s original novels were comparable in their relatively cold depiction – with Brit spy dealing with Russian defectors, crazed American patriots, double-agents and triple-crosses, with even a few femme fatales thrown in for good measure.
In 1965, when Deighton had already begun work on the fourth and last book in the series, production commenced on a movie adaptation of the first book, The Ipcress File, and subsequently its breakthrough success and critical acclaim guaranteed a five-picture deal for the leading star, Michael Caine, who embodied the anonymous central character, now given the name Harry Palmer. In the end only two out of the three remaining books were adapted into sequels, now largely forgotten movies – a shame considering they are actually quite good. The Ipcress File, however, remains an undisputed classic, a Bafta Award-winning production that sits at #59 in the BFI Top 100.
After a top British scientist disappears, his armed escort left for dead, Colonel Ross, a senior British Intelligence Officer, calls in Harry Palmer, and dispatches him to join the team that is investigating the disappearance. Although Palmer will – ostensibly – be working for the head of the operation, Major Dalby, he reports to Ross, who believes that Palmer, despite his low-level status, has a suitably sneaky and mischievous nature with which he can get to the heart of the potential conspiracy. Something of an autonomous entity, Palmer tenaciously investigates the matter, impressing the hard-to-please Dalby whilst also drawing animosity from Ross, who watches over him like a hawk. But as he gets more and more answers, and draws closer to the truth, Palmer soon realises that there are no friends left in this business – there’s no one he can trust – and the truth that he may well uncover could just cost him his life.
Although The Ipcress File was Directed by one Sidney J. Furie (whose work includes the likes of Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) the movie arguably owes much more to Producer Harry Saltzman and Cinematographer Otto Helmer. Saltzman produced all of the Bond films from Dr. No through to The Man with the Golden Gun, and was working on Thunderball at the same time as The Ipcress File, but his hands-on approach with the latter was possibly more than on any of his Bond productions, eventually leading to him preventing Furie, the Director, from having access to the editing suite, and thus stopping him from having final cut. He further brought on board Production Designer Ken Adam and Editor Peter Hunt – from the Bond movies – to work on creating a darker, grittier alternative to said franchise. And Helmer, who went on to provide the Cinematography for the first Palmer sequel, Funeral in Berlin, deserves special credit for capturing the movie in such a distinctive, unique fashion. Massively stylish, especially for the time, his shots take in almost every conceivable camera angle – memorably introducing the protagonist with a blurred view through his eyes which shifts into focus as he puts his glasses on. Between their work on the film, and Bond composer John Barry’s input on the distinctive score, Ipcress File had all the ingredients to make for a great 60s spy thriller.
But it’s the story and characterisation that brings everything together, and guarantees the movie’s place as a classic in film history. Not only is it a terrific spy thriller, but it also captures the dynamic of a 60s England which is shifting at the core. It’s been over a decade since the War, and the class structure is changing – with the iconic Harry Palmer representing the epitome of the working class hero. His direct boss Major Dalby, and his uber-boss Colonel Ross, represent the lower middle-class and upper middle-class, respectively, and Palmer’s front-end experiences get to the heart and soul of the recovering nation. Palmer is rough around the edges, and the first act of the movie establishes him as nothing more than your average civil servant – struggling to get up in the morning, reaching for the coffee first, turning up late to work and wiling away his time on the job, dreading the paperwork he has to file at the end of the day, and, above all, severely underpaid. When given a promotion, his first question is to ask about the pay rise. Palmer isn’t the arrogant, egocentric, globetrotting; suave, sophisticated super-spy that was Bond – at least back in those days – but a much more small-time operative, who just happens to get in over his head in a far-reaching conspiracy, and has to use his wits and street-smarts to put the pieces together and stay one step ahead of the villains.
And at the end of the day, these ‘bad guys’ are not eccentric, cat-stroking supervillains; the movie painting London as one big grey area, where good and bad are just relative terms. In fact it’s Palmer’s disobedience, disrespect and general insubordination that perfectly illustrate the changing views of the class system – his mistrust of his superiors, both Dalby and Ross, reflecting the shifting attitudes towards the various classes: no longer did middle class status equate to unequivocal trustworthiness. And, likewise, no longer did working class status mean you were a brutish thug.
To this end, the then young Brit actor, Michael Caine, fresh from his breakthrough performance in 1964’s Zulu, perfectly embodied the lead hero Harry Palmer, further polarising the now-iconic character as the total antithesis to James Bond, who was – at that time – being played by Sean Connery. Where Bond was all-but landed gentry, reporting directly to HM’s top Governmental echelon – almost aristocracy – Palmer is total working class, an ex-soldier coerced into working as a spy because of his inappropriate behaviour and ‘criminal tendencies’; where Bond stays in all the most expensive hotels and drives all of the most expensive cars, Palmer lives in a studio apartment and pleads for a meagre loan just so he can get his hands on any car. Yet Caine’s cocky cockney still effortlessly unravels all of the previously established paradigms associated with the working class: he is cultured and sophisticated; he enjoys Mozart and is even something of a gourmet cook. With a wry, mischievous sense of humour, and perfect delivery of his subtly witty dialogue, Caine brings this working class underdog to life and totally makes us root for him. He is the expendable pawn at the centre of the elaborate game, and yet he is far from stupid, far from easily misled, and admirably tenacious to boot.
“It isn't usual to read a B-107 to its subject, but I'm going to set you straight. Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies.”
“Yes, that's a pretty fair appraisal.... Sir.”
Nigel Green plays Major Dalby, heading up the operation to recover the missing scientists. Green had, but one year earlier, played subordinate to Caine’s officer in Zulu, but this role-reversal works much better, Green’s hard-to-please but ostensibly fair boss making for a superb counterpart to Caine’s rough-around-the-edges protagonist. It’s interesting to see the dissolution in the class war further evidenced by the interaction of these two – Green’s Major Dalby maintaining airs and graces and listening to Mozart honked out by a loud, abrasive brass band, where Caine’s Palmer, the working class man, prefers what he calls ‘proper Mozart’. Similarly Guy Doleman does well as Colonel Ross, the potentially duplicitous senior Intelligence Officer who Palmer still reports to, albeit reluctantly. Ross, another archetypal upper middle-class suit, has simply no regard for the lives of his subordinates – they are merely tools to get the job done – and so, whether Ross is good or bad we don’t care, we just root for the underdog Palmer.
And matching Bond on one level, Palmer is certainly never alone for very long – there’s usually a new woman around the corner, and Caine effectively charms his prey with an unconventional wit and demeanour. Again, there’s nothing suave and superior here, but his down-to-earth attitude works nonetheless, particularly on supporting actress Sue Lloyd, who plays his love interest Courtney, a fellow intelligence operative whose own motivations are murky to say the least.
Although the CIA do make an appearance, they are far from the always-playing-catchup operatives depicted in the Bond movies (led by the good ol’ boy Felix Leiter), here they are a powerful but clandestine force to be reckoned with, lurking in the shadows, seemingly able to act totally autonomously without fear of any recriminations. Palmer’s brush with the CIA is so well integrated into the story that you get the feeling that they may well be just as dangerous as the villains themselves. This all works so much better – or at least in a much more realistic way – in comparison to the "superior Brits" approach in Bond.
Michael Caine was to return to the role of Harry Palmer in Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, the third and fourth books in the original Len Deighton set (the second book was never made into a movie, despite being the next one planned for adaptation), but neither of those films has ever garnered the love and respect that The Ipcress File has. Funeral in Berlin was pretty damn complicated, rife once more with false identities and double/triple agents, but I think it easily stands up to comparison with the original, and makes the most of the Berlin-wall-divided bleak German setting; and Billion Dollar Brain was directed by the rather extravagant Ken Russell, which gave it something of an odd tone from time to time, but it was certainly the most expansive of all the adaptations, and is still a gripping, intelligent spy thriller. Hard to find, even on DVD, I doubt either will ever make it to Blu-ray, but if they ever did, they would both come recommended as fantastic companion-pieces to the more-famous Ipcress File.
As is, if you haven’t yet seen this first outing for the now-iconic Brit spy Harry Palmer, one of the most memorable characters that Michael Caine has ever brought to life, then I strongly suggest that you take this opportunity to rectify the situation forthwith. It’s a great espionage thriller – stylish cinematography, memorable score, suitably smart story, pitch-perfect acting and witty dialogue – and it all comes packaged in a time-capsule representation of a changing Britain, amidst the shifting paradigms of the class structure. One of the best of the spy thriller genre, one of the best British movies ever made and thus arguably one of the best movies of all time, it comes highly recommended.