|Ipcress File, The|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 12 October 1999|
By the time three James Bond movies had been released, a kind of reaction against their cocky flamboyance had begun to set in, and "more realistic," vaguely anti-007 spy movies were made. One of the first was based on Len Deighton's novel The Ipcress File; the movie was produced by Harry Saltzman, who, with Cubby Broccoli, also produced the Bond movies. Deighton's series of novels about an unnamed British spy who worked much further down the bureaucratic ladder than James Bond had become popular, so Saltzman hoped to generate another franchise with movie adaptations of the Deighton novels -- and for a while, he did.
In the movie, Deighton's almost blue-collar nameless spy became Harry Palmer, played by Michael Caine in his first leading role. THE IPCRESS FILE wasn't a smash hit, but it was popular, and led to two more Harry Palmer movies, the subdued FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966) and the over-the-top BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967), which was much more like a Bond movie than like the first two Harry Palmer outings. In the mid-90s, Caine unwisely backed two further Harry Palmer movies, BULLET TO BEIJING and MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG, both so badly made that they went straight to video.
THE IPCRESS FILE is another matter, and the best of the Harry Palmer movies; it gives little or no sign of the turmoil surrounding its production that director Sidney J. Furie complains about to editor Peter Hunt on the commentary track. In an effort to make something out of an assignment he seems to have detested, Furie went wild with the camera, insisting that skilled cinematographer Otto Heller shoot from some of the most improbable angles in movie history. Almost all "normal" shots seem to be from knee level; there are so many view up actors' nostrils that you begin to suspect Heller was the shortest cameraman of all time. There are shots through bent arms, holes, cymbals, baskets, even through a pair of eyeglasses lying on a parking lot pavement. Furie balked at Saltzman's insistence on a fight scene, giving in only when he decided to shoot the fight at a distance, from inside a phone booth.
But all of this, oddly enough, works quite well (and better than in Furie's next movie, THE APPALOOSA). Since the story deals with a realistic, red-tape-bureaucracy secret service, the flamboyance of the camera angles lends an air of mystery and exoticism to the everyday world of Harry Palmer.
Harry himself is not exactly ordinary. In the film, he's described as insubordinate, insolent, a trickster, perhaps with criminal tendencies, and he's usually assigned minor surveillance tasks. Between assignments, he chases women and cooks gourmet dinners; he also wears horn-rim glasses. His dry, long-suffering supervisor Ross (Guy Doleman) reassigns him to the unit headed by veddy military Dalby (Nigel Green), who regards Harry with a skeptical eye.
A serious problem facing Britain (in reality as well) is the "Brain Drain," with noted scientists leaving England for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But as the movie opens, a famous scientist is mysteriously kidnapped. The culprit is well known, foreign-born Grantby (Frank Gatliff), code-named Blue Jay; Palmer ingeniously contacts him, and Grantby agrees to return the scientist for a big wad of money. However, when he returns, he is incapable of discussing his specialty (proto-proton scattering, as it happens).
Palmer's investigation turns up a strip of recording tape marked with the unknown word "Ipcress" (the explanation for which is essentially thrown away). Despite opposition from Dalby and some incursions by Ross, Harry persists.
Although THE IPCRESS FILE is smoothly produced and as handsome as any of the Bond movies, it really is on a much smaller canvas; Harry doesn't even leave London, and he's lower-echelon all the way. Even Ross and Dalby are mere bureaucrats in thankless jobs. But the movie would be an entertaining espionage thriller even without the 007 as contrast -- it's smart, fast-paced and imaginative.
And so is Michael Caine. Usually, his next film, ALFIE, is cited as the movie that turned him into a star, but it really was THE IPCRESS FILE, and it's easy to see why. Handsome in an ordinary-guy way, Caine didn't -- and doesn't -- really look like a movie star, but he has a star's charisma and staying power. And he's an excellent actor; in fact, actors don't get better than Michael Caine, they only get as good as he is, and always has been. Despite the flamboyance of Furie's camera and the strong supporting cast, THE IPCRESS FILE is unquestionably a Michael Caine movie, and his witty, underplayed performance is the reason it became popular. The film may have made him, but he makes the film, too.
The DVD is a nice piece of work, letterboxed and with good sound (but boy what a lousy cover). However, the narration track by Furie and Hunt is repetitious and dull, and Furie's constant whining about being mistreated by Saltzman becomes deeply boring. Neither Furie nor Hunt had seen THE IPCRESS FILE in years before they recorded their track, so there are far, far too many lines like "remember this?" and "oh, here's the part where...." and "is he no longer with us?" It's unprofessional, but one gets the feeling it would have been a lot better if Hunt alone had done the track.
There was more to spy movies of the 1960s than just James Bond and his villains; if you've a taste for espionage movies, THE IPCRESS FILE is a great place to start.