Random Film of the Week: The Ipcress File

(thanks, Classic British Film!)

The Ipcress File_MPAs far as movie openings go, Sidney J. Furie’s 1965 spy drama The Ipcress File was and still is an attention grabber. There are no studio logos or bombastic fanfares to kick things off here – the film just begins with a pre-credit sequence that has two men walking to a car somewhere in London and you’re hooked in like a greedy trout. A leading British scientist being taken to a train station is mysteriously kidnapped and his escort killed by unseen assailants.

As you’re taking this in (head spinning slightly) the scene shifts to one Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), a myopic former soldier and petty criminal turned British government agent slowly rolling out of bed to start his workday as John Barry’s excellent main title theme buzzes your eardrums. Right from the beginning, this is one of those great ‘pay attention’ movies guaranteed to hold you in its grasp thanks to a cast and crew dedicated to their work…

Harry’s boring surveillance job is interrupted as he’s called in to see his boss, promoted and sent to a new post, replacing the agent who was killed at the train station. He and the other operatives are given orders to track down the two men most likely responsible for the kidnapping and make a deal to get the scientist back on British soil. Harry manages to be the only one to make contact with both men, but other than a non-working phone number and some bruised knuckles from a fight with one, he comes up seemingly empty handed. From here, the film is part spy drama, part procedural and part action film with double crosses, a bit of fancy torture and an ending that’s quite the corker. That recovered scientist’s big brain is now an empty one and there’s a few clues that lead Palmer and the people around him into some deep trouble.

Caine carries the film as Harry Palmer with all his flaws and strengths showing from the moment he’s introduced. He can’t see without his glasses, flirts too much for his own good, has plenty of issues with authority, filling out paperwork and his own departmental files baring all his issues to anyone who needs to access them. On the good side of things, Harry sleeps with his loaded gun, grinds his own coffee each morning and cooks his own dinner in the evening with the best ingredients he can afford on his salary. He’s also not bad in a fight and on occasion, a good enough field agent that people notice his efforts. But he’s also human and his weaknesses catch up to him, leading to his own disappearance and an attempt to get him to commit acts that would finish his career (and possibly his life)…

Both his superiors show a natural distaste for him and his disrespectful attitude, yet they acknowledge his better efforts at his job because they know he’s both the man for whatever job he’s handed yet completely expendable if need be. The latter portion of the film, an extended imprisonment/torture scene/plot reveal shows Harry using all his might to resist what’s happening, but in the end, his human (and very non-Bond) frailty both saves him and dooms him to a point. I hadn’t read the book the film is based on and I’ll recommend you don’t either, as going in cold works better here at gluing you to whatever you’re sitting on even more tightly.

The film is so steeped in its atmosphere of 1965 London that you can practically smell the coffee Harry grinds and brews, the gunpowder from the “fireworks” supply room in the intentionally dingy office he’s transferred to and the perfume the ladies are wearing as he ogles them. Even with five key people on the film from the James Bond series (producer Harry Saltzman, executive producer Charles Kasher, editor Peter R. Hunt, composer John Barry, and production designer Ken Adam), This never looks or feels anything like a Bond adventure save for a few slight tonal nods to the spy genre. Furie’s direction is magnificent yet stylish as he shoots a fight scene through the window of a telephone booth or pulls off a fantastic sequence near the climax that splits two potential targets on opposite sides of the screen to stunning effect.

Like plenty of 60’s spy films, there’s a body count here, but it’s a “mere” six corpses when all is said and done. Unlike too many where mindless shootouts and explosions become a selling point, each death is integral to the plot as Harry becomes the center of attention as his investigation pulls him closer to the truth. Interestingly enough, most of the dying happens off screen where a body is shown post-murder and there are only two brief action scenes here, both of which work perfectly. Before all that occurs, poor Harry gets stuck with monotonous paperwork, tracking down clues and later, stumbling across a body that’s set up to frame him but good. He does have time for a romantic romp with a fellow agent (Sue Lloyd), but even that dalliance is tainted in more ways than one.

By the time the ending rolls around, Harry’s been through the wringer, things are resolved to a point, but there’s a bitterness in the air that lingers as the screen fades to black. Whereas James Bond got to save the world too many times before cuddling up to some random curvy cutie to toss out dopey, inappropriate quips with a smile and wink, poor Mister Palmer’s been through the more realistic wringer and does his best for a smaller yet equally important part of England. And what does he get for all his pain and suffering? Told the truth and a borrowed bit of cloth as a rather unfair exchange for his gun, that’s what…

6 thoughts on “Random Film of the Week: The Ipcress File

  1. It drives me nuts this is out-of-print. I really hope someone gets off their duff and re-releases this. I have read the Len Deighton novel this is based on, and while there are a few changes (Harry Palmer was a name invented for the film; he has no name given in the novel), it’s a pretty good adaptation as well as a good film. I’m not a fan of Furie in general, but he does a good job here, and the supporting cast, including Nigel Green, is also good. It’s Caine, though, who carries this, operating at a nice medium between James Bond and George Smiley. And this remains, for my money, the best of the Harry Palmer movies, either based directly on Deighton’s novels (Billion Dollar Brain) or not (Bullet to Beijing).

    At any rate, nice write-up.

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    • Thanks much!

      I had this on VHS for years until the tape wore out and broke mid-movie (nooo!) maybe 10 years back. Of course, back then I thought EVERY good movie was on DVD and this would be a snap (pun intended) to replace. Nope. I had a tough time tracking down a DVD I could run on what I have here until a few months back. Oddly enough, I’d seen official PAL versions of the film available from UK shops but I wanted something I could play on my TV and not the computers here. The only NTSC/all region version I found was from a Japanese ebay seller selling (legal) South Korean DVDs and this film was one of his bigger sellers. I’d gather most were ending up here because it’s never been released on a disc in North America and I couldn’t pass it up.

      I’m not much of a big Furie fan either, but it seems he was really inspired by the material and his cast. I saw Bullet to Bejing maybe five years back and thought it was okay and have yet to see Million Dollar Brain again (I saw it when I was about nine years old and of course, was too young to know what the heck was going on).

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  2. “his human (and very non-Bond) frailty both saves him and dooms him to a point” — This is a key point to the movie. I first saw this on television when I was a kid and was happy to see a fellow eyeglass wearer as a movie hero. I watch this one every time I get a chance. Thank you for sharing with us.

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    • Thanks! You know (WARNING: spoiler ahead for anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the movie yet!), I thought the film would use Harry’s poor vision as a sort of “natural” deterrent to his “treatment”, as you see how bad his sight is without his spectacles a few times earlier. I’m glad it didn’t, though – that would have been a too easy and obvious “out” and would have lessened the ending to some extent. Of course, if it were a Bond flick, I’d bet 007 would have conveniently been wearing special contact lenses that would go dark and block the visual part of the program while he pretended to be brainwashed later… 😀

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  3. Great review! This is one of my all-time favorite spy films. Before seeing it, I had always wished for a spy who had a budget, paperwork and who hated overtime. Voila! Such a film existed! Michael Caine was wonderful in the part and I enjoyed the subtle-but-stylish score and the quirky, understated fight scenes. That bitterness in the finale is a definite plus. Thanks for participating!

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    • You’re welcome! it’s fun to show this to someone who hasn’t seen it and watch them react to stuff being so… mundane in Harry’s routine, how blind a bat he is without his glasses and other things you don’t see in those “super” spy films.

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