Continuing our occasional series looking at the post-Bond spy movies that emerged in the 1960s with this classic ‘anti-Bond’ downbeat thriller that spawned its own franchise.
The Ipcress File has often been described as the ‘anti-Bond’ film of the Sixties, with its hero Harry Palmer of course the ‘anti-James Bond‘. As glib descriptions go, it’s a pretty good one, though I’m not sure it especially helps the film – even when saying something is the opposite of something else, you’re still inevitably inviting a comparison. Yes, this is a spy film, and yes, it’s produced by Harry Saltzman, who at the time was also one of the Bond producers, but that’s the only connection the films have.
There were, in fact, two distinct types of spy thrillers being made in the 1960s. On the one hand, you had Bond and his imitators, from Flint to Matt Helm and a slew of pan-continental, low budget Euro movies, all of which were in the never quite real ‘guns, gadgets and girls’ world of 007. Then, there were the rather more down to Earth, Cold War thrillers that were popular as novels (as indeed this story originally was, written by Len Deighton) and translated into movies that were more about espionage than action. Furtive meetings in dark alleyways, double and triple crosses, checkpoints and coded messages were the meat and potatoes of these films, and it’s this latter category that The Ipcress File fits neatly into. This is to spy thrillers what Goldfinger was to spy action movies.
In his first leading role, Michael Caine is Harry Palmer, an insolent army sergeant who finds himself seconded to a secret counter-intelligence unit, where he is tasked with securing the return of a kidnapped scientist. This is far from Bond glamour. Palmer has a little desk in a cramped office and his boss Major Dalby (Nigel Green) is as concerned with paperwork as actual spying. In any case, they know it’s Eric Ashley Grantby (Frank Gatliff), codenamed Blujay, who has grabbed the scientist, and are prepared to pay to get him back, so all Palmer needs to do is find the kidnapper and make the offer. That he manages to do this quickly while his colleagues, in the job much longer, singularly fail to find any leads says a lot about how desk-bound they are.
The payoff and exchange seem to go off without a hitch – a dead American agent aside. But things soon start to unravel, as Palmer finds himself framed as a double agent and then captured by Bluejay, where he is subjected to brainwashing. By this time, he’s unsure who he can trust, and sure enough, the story is awash with people who are not quite who or what they seem to be.
As Palmer, Caine is suitably laconic – his NHS glasses effectively de-glamourising him and his domestic life (he lives alone in a flat and his first response to his new job is to ask if he gets any more money) is a far cry from the playboy lifestyle of Bond. The fact that the opening scene has him waking up – alone – and going through his morning routine emphasises the ordinariness of the character. This is not the sort of spy who will be going around shagging glamorous femme fatales. He does manage to pull office colleague Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd), but even then, it seems a questionable relationship – at one point, they both accuse each other of secretly working for other departments and Palmer suspects she is spying on him – not for another country, but for his former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). Inter-departmental espionage seems as much a thing here as any international spy rings, with Ross trying to find out what Dalby is up to and vice versa.
Such a story could be ridiculously complicated, but thankfully, director Sidney J. Furie keeps things on an even keel, balancing the secret agent stuff with more domestic reality – one scene has Ross and Palmer in a supermarket, discussing microfilming documents in the middle of dodging shopping trollies and debating the virtue of expensive tinned mushrooms. This down to Earth reality is reflected in the look of the film – it’s all very grey and bleak, with no sign of Swinging London to be seen – and even the violence. An early fight scene is shot from a distance, without sound or dramatic music, effectively neutering it. Anti-Bond indeed!
But don’t think that the film is a dull and worthy spy drama. There’s little actual excitement, true, but instead, Furie keeps the film constantly tense. A lot of the scenes are shot as though we are observing events secretly, the camera poking through broken windows, over balconies and so on – we are observers, sneakily watching Palmer, and it creates a curious tension – you suspect that things are going to happen a lot more than they do. Conversely, there are scenes that take you by surprise – a shock death, a sudden revelation – and the psychological torture scenes towards the end of the film are both bizarre and intense, Palmer’s agony and determination to stay focused by causing himself physical pain being surprisingly effective even now. Things are helped enormously by John Barry’s score – as iconic as his Bond work in many ways, but very different – there’s no bombast here, just a subtle cranking up of the tension throughout.
Caine is impressive as Palmer – witty, sarcastic and sometimes charming, he feels a much more realistic character than you normally get in spy movies, and his understated performance is perfect. Doleman and Green make a great double act – often providing the film’s comic moments – as the two upper-crust military rivals, Gatliff is a believably slimy villain and there’s solid support from Lloyd and Gordon Jackson.
Witty, gritty and oddly timeless, The Ipcress File holds up remarkably well today. It’s the best of the Harry Palmer films (there were two immediate sequels – Funeral in Berlin and the rather too gimmicky Ken Russell-directed Billion Dollar Brain – and two dreadful late entries in the 1990s) and one of the great spy movies.
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