In 1965 Michael Caine starred in The Ipcress File, his first starring role, and the first of three films featuring British spy Harry Palmer. Palmer is a relatively lowly field operative who spends much of his time engaged in routine surveillance work for the department of Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). When a Government scientist is kidnapped, and his minder killed, Palmer is transferred to the department of Major Dalby (Nigel Green), to replace the dead man and to help track down the missing scientist.
Palmer is gradually drawn into a complex web of intrigue, unsure of who he can trust. At his new department he meets reliable Jock (Gordon Jackson) and the intriguing Courtney (Sue Lloyd). Palmer takes a romantic interest in Courtney which seems to be reciprocated, but does she have an ulterior motive in getting close to him? And is she really working for Major Dalby as she claims, or is she secretly under the orders of Colonel Ross?
When Palmer thinks the missing scientist is being held in a disused warehouse, he uses security clearance that he doesn't really have to mount an operation to rescue him. But he gets there too late, and all they find is a damaged piece of tape, in the embers of a still-warm stove, with "IPCRESS" written on it. When the tape is played back, all it contains are weird sounds and white noise. Palmer's old boss Colonel Ross seems to have a particular interest in the tape and asks Palmer to give him all the information held on it in the IPCRESS file, behind the back of Palmer's new boss Dalby. Can Palmer really trust Ross, or is he secretly working for the enemy? Why is Palmer apparently being followed wherever he goes? Is it by one of Ross's men or by someone who works for the other side? And what is the significance of the IPCRESS tape?
The Ipcress File was based on Len Deighton's debut novel of 1962. Ironically, since the film was often described as the antidote to James Bond and even now is generally appreciated in those terms, it was produced by Harry Saltzman, the co-producer of the Bond films, and used many of the Bond team. These included the composer John Barry, editor Peter Hunt and designer Ken Adam, as well as the actor Guy Doleman, who played a villain in the same year's Bond film Thunderball. The film is typically intelligently edited by Hunt, but finds Ken Adam in an uncharacteristically restrained mode, providing simple sets and understated settings.
Michael Caine had been plugging away in films as a jobbing actor for nearly a decade when he unexpectedly won a major supporting role in Zulu (1964). Caine was auditioning for the role of Private Hook (eventually played by James Booth), but was instead offered the bigger part of Lieutenant Bromhead, almost a co-star role with the film's producer and star, Stanley Baker. Caine built on that success with his first lead role in The Ipcress File, the film that turned him into a leading man and an international film star.
Caine is excellent in what was almost a career-defining role, especially when combined with his cockney Lothario in the following year's Alfie. Harry Palmer is a very reluctant spy, a man bailed out of an army detention barracks and recruited into the secret service. His criminal past means that his bosses always have some degree of control over him, as he can be returned to an army prison if he becomes too troublesome. Despite that, Palmer is a likeable character, a chancer with a sense of humour and a healthy disrespect for authority.
The Ipcress File did more than just provide Caine with his first starring role, it also enabled him to develop his star persona, a cocky, cockney, Jack the lad, with charm, a sense of humour and a hint of vulnerability. There's a bit of Harry Palmer in almost all of Caine's leading roles of the 1960s, from Alfie and Gambit (1966) to Too Late the Hero (1969) and The Italian Job (1969). Palmer was not named in the book but, looking for a "boring" name, Caine guilelessly suggested Harry, although the film's producer Harry Saltzman doesn't seem to have taken it too badly. The surname came from a boy Caine remembered from his school days.
Caine was not the first choice to play Harry Palmer. Richard Harris, Christopher Plummer and Ian Bannen were all considered, with Plummer turning the part down to star in The Sound of Music (1965). A more surprising option was Harry H. Corbett, who was starring in the sitcom Steptoe and Son (1962-74) as a rag-and-bone man, and had just had lead roles in two comedy films, The Bargee and Rattle of a Simple Man (both 1964). But Saltzman ultimately opted for Caine and signed him up to a multi-film contract.
The 1960s, of course, was the golden age of the spy film, and The Ipcress File arrived early enough in the spy boom to make a major impact. There were plenty of Bond-style spy fantasies appearing by the mid-sixties, but The Ipcress File helped to create a new sub-genre, the realistic spy film, together with the contemporary John Le Carré adaptations, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965).
Instead of glamorous globe-trotting adventures, the film of The Ipcress File (unlike the book) is set almost entirely in London. And this is a 1960s London that's still not quite swinging, one that's shrugging off a post-war hangover. A grey city of bedsits, steam trains, dreary offices and disused warehouses. The Ipcress File is almost a bridge between the deglamorized realism of the "kitchen sink" films of the British New Wave and the more stylized and upbeat "swinging London" films of the mid-sixties, as well as between the different spying worlds of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. The film echoes the grittiness and realism of the New Wave films, while also showing some of the quirkiness and style-consciousness of the later films of the 1960s. In his humble origins and his disdainful attitude to his job and his bosses, Palmer probably also owes something to the working class protagonists of the kitchen sink dramas of the early part of the decade.
The film emphasises the ordinariness of Palmer and his everyday life, showing him making his morning coffee, shopping in a supermarket and cooking dinner. Palmer also wears glasses, usually considered a distinctly unsexy and un-film star like appearance. But he is an aspirational figure in his own modest way. He is a bit of a gourmet, has his own bachelor pad, enjoys books and is a classical music buff. He is also just as interested in the opposite sex as Bond.
Palmer's culinary interests reflect those of the author Len Deighton, and one of Deighton's weekly Observer cook strips is seen pinned to Palmer's wall. Palmer is also seen making his morning brew with a coffee machine, something that probably marked him out as a bit of a sophisticate in 1965. The coffee machine was a Berkay Insta-Brewer, made by a company part-owned by the film's executive producer Charles Kasher, in a cheeky piece of product placement. The title sequence, showing Palmer getting up and making his breakfast, is a clear influence on the Paul Newman flick Harper (1966), which opens with a very similar scene.
Palmer's tastes also play into the class elements of the film. Colonel Ross shops in one of these new supermarkets ("One has to move with the times"), but it's Palmer who is knowledgeable about food and appreciates fine cuisine. And while Dalby enjoys military band concerts, Palmer's tastes are a little more highbrow, favouring Bach or Mozart. Palmer is morally superior to his bosses, who play games with others' lives without getting their hands dirty, and who often have suspect motives and allegiances. But he is also more culturally sophisticated and in tune with the times, unlike his hidebound superiors. By 1965 a number of scandals had shaken the country's faith in the establishment, including the uncovering of the Cambridge spy ring and the Profumo scandal. The Ipcress File's anti-establishment themes are handled quite subtly and played into the prevailing mood of the mid-sixties.
The film's director was Sidney J. Furie, a Canadian who had mostly worked in low budget films since arriving in England. Furie brings a distinctive visual style to The Ipcress File, sometimes filming from a very high or a very low viewpoint, framing his scenes with strange tilts and Dutch angles, and from behind objects placed in the foreground, obscuring part of the frame. The strange angles and obscured views suggest, as in The Third Man (1949), that this is not the everyday world it appears to be, but one where everything is a little off-kilter, where everything needs to be carefully examined to discern its true nature and where nothing is quite as it seems. Furie continually finds new and inventive set-ups and his camera almost becomes a character in the film, lurking behind doors that are left ajar, hiding behind brick walls or peering through car windows. Shots are often partially obscured, to give the sense that the audience is eavesdropping, discovering a world that should be kept hidden. In one audacious move, the film subverts thriller convention and films a fight scene through the windows of a phone box, so that the action is obscured by the frame of the door and window.
The film's themes of observation and perception extend to Palmer's eye wear. In Palmer's first scene, we see a blurry shot from his point-of-view, one that only comes into focus when he puts his glasses on. We get some similarly blurry POV moments later on in the film. The significance of this is not just that it gives us some clever, blurred, subjective camera shots. The significance is that perception is important in the world of The Ipcress File. In some significant scenes, things are literally not what they seem. Palmer's understanding of events is sometimes as blurry as his vision and the true nature of things only becomes apparent if you look at them in the right way.
The style that Furie and his cinematographer, Otto Heller, employed in The Ipcress File was made possible by the use of Techniscope, a cheaper widescreen format that the director had previously used on the Cliff Richard musical Wonderful Life (1964). It was favoured by film makers who wanted the prestige of widescreen without the expense, including Sergio Leone, who used it on A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and its sequels. Techniscope also used only two perforations in the film instead of four, meaning that when it was projected onto a cinema screen, the resulting image was noticeably grittier and grainier, something that helped to create the grey, dowdy aesthetic of The Ipcress File.
The film's assured and seamless style belies the fact that it was a troubled production. No one was really happy with the original script, and on the first day of filming Furie gathered the crew around and burned his copy to show his contempt for it. (Although this dramatic gesture did mean that he had to borrow Michael Caine's copy to work out what they were filming next.) While only James Canaway and Bill Doran are credited, another four writers worked on the script; Lukas Heller, Ken Hughes and Lionel Davidson, together with Johanna Harwood, who had worked on the Bond films Dr No (1962) and From Russia with Love (1963). Despite the problems, the finished screenplay works surprisingly well. The plotting is satisfyingly convoluted, the script develops some interesting themes, and it's underscored with character touches and wry humour.
The relationship between producer and director, however, was fraught, and the ill-will extended beyond the filming and post-production. Saltzman had envisioned the film as a poor man's James Bond with simple thrills and spills, and was aghast at Furie's arty direction. This resulted in blazing rows and eventually Furie was banned from the editing room and excluded from the screening party at Cannes. Saltzman considered firing him, but thought that his regular Bond editor Peter Hunt could save the film in post-production, although Hunt's sympathies turned out to be in line with Furie's ideas.
Furie was also told not to meet with the film's composer, John Barry. But the two met in secret where Barry hummed the whole score to him, playing the part of each instrument. Perhaps inevitably, Saltzman didn't care for Barry's music either, but was eventually persuaded that it would be acceptable. Which is just as well because it's excellent. Barry's main theme, also known as "A Man Alone" is simple, but haunting and highly effective. Barry used the cimbalom, a Hungarian instrument that gave the score a distinctive sound, as well as a just discernible central European flavour, suggesting the Eastern bloc and the Cold War background. Barry's music maintains a sense of mystery and intrigue throughout and is especially eerie in the film's prison scenes. It also helped to develop a sound for the serious spy genre and Barry used the cimbalom again in his score for The Quiller Memorandum (1966). The British spy series Callan (1967-72), starring Edward Woodward, has a bleak title sequence set to mournful, twanging theme music that is also very obviously inspired by The Ipcress File.
The Ipcress File opened to rave reviews in Britain and became a substantial hit. It also became an unexpected success when released later in the year in the US, where it was hailed as "the thinking man's Goldfinger" by Newsweek, and many other critics made favourable comparisons to Bond. The film won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film as well as BAFTAs for Ken Adam and Otto Heller and nominations for the screenplay and for Michael Caine. The film was invited to compete at the Cannes Film Festival as one of two official British entries, alongside Sidney Lumet's film The Hill. Both films lost the top prize to a wild card entry, Richard Lester's The Knack, another British film.
The film put Furie in great demand, but critics were less impressed when he used a similar style on the western The Appaloosa in 1966, finding it jarring and inappropriate for the material, and on The Naked Runner (1967). The latter was another British spy film with some of The Ipcress File's crew (including cinematographer Otto Heller), but the style seemed forced and Furie looked like he was repeating himself.
Caine would reprise the role of Harry Palmer in two sequels, the underrated Funeral in Berlin (1966) and the disappointing Billion Dollar Brain (1967). His contract with Harry Saltzman meant that he appeared in other Saltzman productions, including two WWII films, Play Dirty and the all-star Battle of Britain, both in 1969. The Ipcress File also led directly to his casting in another signature role in Alfie, after Peter Hunt suggested him to the director Lewis Gilbert and showed him an early cut of the film.
The success of The Ipcress File made spy films a genre Caine would often be associated with, and he appeared in several others, including The Black Windmill (1974), The Fourth Protocol (1987) and Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). Caine would also reprise the role of Harry Palmer in two straight-to-video efforts for Harry Alan Towers in the 1990s when his career was in the doldrums, Midnight in St. Petersburg and Bullet to Beijing, but these have little in common with the originals.
The Ipcress File is one of Caine's truly great films. It's totally of its time and yet manages to transcend it. It oozes style, creates a unique atmosphere and continually delights with its imaginative stylings, its haunting score and its droll humour. It's a master class in film technique, an engaging character study, a wry satire on bureaucracy, a subtle dig at the British establishment, and an exploration of the changing mores of 1960s Britain. And it just happens to be a great spy film as well.
The Ipcress FileYear: 1965
Genre: Spy Film, Thriller, Mystery, Drama
Director: Sidney J. Furie
Cast Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Nigel Green (Major Dalby), Guy Doleman (Colonel Ross), Sue Lloyd (Jean Courtney), Gordon Jackson (Jock Carswell), Aubrey Richards (Dr. Radcliffe), Frank Gatliff (Bluejay), Thomas Baptiste (Barney), Oliver MacGreevy (Housemartin), Freda Bamford (Alice), Pauline Winter (Charlady), Anthony Blackshaw (Edwards), Barry Raymond (Gray), David Glover (Chilcott-Oakes), Stanley Meadows (Inspector Pat Keightley), Peter Ashmore (Sir Robert), Michael Murray (Raid inspector), Antony Baird (Raid sergeant), Tony Caunter (O.N.I. Man), Charles Rea (Taylor), Ric Hutton (Records officer), Douglas Blackwell (Murray), Richard Burrell (Operator), Glynn Edwards (Police station sergeant), Zsolt Vadaszffy (Prison doctor), Joseph Behrmann, Max Faulkner and Paul S. Chapman (Prison guards)
Screenplay Bill Canaway, James Doran, based on the novel by Len Deighton Producer Harry Saltzman Cinematography Otto Heller Production designer Ken Adam Editor Peter Hunt Music John Barry
Running time 109 mins Colour Technicolor Widescreen Techniscope
Production company Lowndes Productions Distributor Rank Organisation (UK), Universal (US)
See also: Funeral in Berlin