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Although conceived and produced by Harry Salzman and scored by John
Barry, this is a film which deliberately positions itself miles away
from the up until this time familiar James Bond espionage ethos. Palmer
is a short sighted, class-ridden, form-signing petty criminal, co-opted
into the spy service to avoid a year in jail. He lives in a bedsit and
wakes up with an alarm call and not a stunning sexual conquest. Unlike
Bond too, he operates in an environment which is recognisable and
totally believable: big echoing offices ruled by "passed over Majors",
where filling out forms is as important as tedious leg work and the
idea of a Aston Martin as a company car would be ridiculous. The
glamorous stereotypes of 007 have been replaced by the grinding, self
effacing reality of the civil service, with its believable day to day
grind. In short Ipcress has roots in the contemporary wave of 60's
kitchen-sink drama, and not garish Bond fantasies.
This is a film taking a fresh look at what has passed for a spy film before. It's fitting then that a lot of the imagery revolves around sight and seeing. Palmer's glasses are an obvious symbol of imperfect vision (exemplified by a couple of 'blurred vision' special effects in the film). The camera in turn plays avant garde tricks, shooting alternately through the crowded window of a phone booth, through glasses, ornaments and other objects and so on. This is a film in which vision, or *comprehension* - deciphering 'Ipcress' or identifying 'Albania' as really London, for instance - is finally of paramount importance. Palmer has to both see, then understand, the web that surrounds him before he identifies the traitor. At the most basic level this 'knowing' extends to his own self, through the psychological trauma he undergoes.
Class, too, is an important element. Whereas the public school educated Bond would be at home conversing with Palmer's superiors, Palmer is the working class staff man, insubordinate perhaps and cocky, but one who ultimately knows his place. Even the main villain is fairly aristocratic. This makes Palmer's final choice of shot all the more relishable. In the class-ridden snobbery of the secret service it proves to be one of the elite who is suspect and must be killed. Palmer is the better man - and not just morally either: his appreciation of Mozart ('proper' Mozart, too, not the appalling bandstand variety pushed on him by Daulby) and fine cooking, marks him out as a man of taste, in contrast to the surrounding snobbery and elitism.
This theme of class, as well as the locations chosen for 'The Ipcress File' mark it out as a very British spy film - possibly the best one ever in contrast to the Bond cycle, which represented an attempt to create a deliberate trans-Atlantic product. One parallel serves to illustrate this difference: Bond has an American agent friend (Felix Leiter), an occasional minor character in the series. In contrast Palmer shoots an American agent dead by mistake and they tail him in revenge, while another dies in his flat. There is no camaraderie here, and the snug special relationship is nowhere in sight.
Over the years 'The Ipcress File' has lost none of its edge (with the possible exception of the dated 60's psychedelia which confronts Palmer in his torture chair) or punch. Utterly compulsive as a spy drama, it remains one of Caine and Furie's best films, an example of a contemporary fresh approach that still remains a classic.
Although this film is obviously made on something of a shoestring,
there is nothing "kitchen sink about it". The scenes are shot on
location in London (I came out of my house one morning, and saw them
shooting the film across the road. A friend told me that Michael Caine
was in the film, and this turns out to be the film.) This film was made
in the wake of the Philby, McLean et al scandal, and the film enters
the British class warfare with all guns blazing. You see, these bunch
of traitors were not the undependable working class, these were "decent
Oxbridge chaps" who had had the finest education and privilege. And it
was THEY who had sided with the commies. Similarly, the Profumo affair,
where a minister of the Conservative government had been sharing a
mistress with a Soviet diplomat, had been a nail in the coffin for the
"old British order." If the chaps at the top couldn't be relied on to
stay loyal. How about the rabble beneath?
Harry Palmer represents the new kind of British hero, just as Michael Caine represents the new kind of British film actor. Whereas in British action films hitherto, the elite were shown as efficient and brave with their "OK, chaps, in you go. I'll be right behind you;" here they are displayed as duplicitous, inept, and resistant to change. (Listen to the comments made about supermarkets by Col. Ross.) The new order of things is being swept away, as evinced by Major Dalby swinging away to the military band in the park, in a sparsely filled auditorium.
Again and again this theme of "it's the upper classes that are subversive comes up - from the very beginning, when Palmer leaves his lowly flat in Maida Vale's Formosa Street to head for a stakeout in Hamilton Terrace, one of the most exclusive streets in London. When the traitor is revealed at the end, it is a member of the establishment, who apparently believes in the system - not the insubordinate Palmer who continually cocks a snook at the system.
Plenty of interesting imagery here. Notice that it is the "working class" Palmer who is living the most sophisticated life, from the moment he first appears in the memorable scene. Yes, the working class with their regional accents, and studying the racing pages of the newspapers have now got electric kettles, electric coffee grinders, and make their coffee in cafetieres. Another harbinger of the social change to come is the CIA agent, portrayed by a well-dressed Negro who smokes a pipe.
Then there is the irony. The establishment, who hold the lower orders in utter contempt are the ones who embrace communism, a system that is supposed to be on the side of the worker, while it is lower orders, as represented by Palmer, who are trying to stop them.
The spy mystery is just the tip of this iceberg, the interesting things are the changes in society that are going on underneath.
The best thing about this film is the fascinating period atmosphere. When
this film was made, 1965, Britain, and British filmmaking, was exactly on
the cusp between the old, class ridden, Imperial culture of films like
'Zulu', and the gritty, modern, realist school that began with films like
In '65 Britain had a Labour government after a long period of Conservative rule, and sweeping changes were about to happen which would utterly change the face of British life. 'Ipcress' bridges the gap between these two eras.
On the one hand we have the upper-middle class army officers lunching at their clubs and strolling along in bowler hats with tightly furled umbrellas, and at the other extreme we have the way-out psychedelia of the interrogation chamber scene, and the grimy world of offices, warehouses, and men jumping out of vans that defined the TV and films of the 70s such as 'The Sweeney'.
In the middle somewhere is Harry Palmer, who rather than being working class, is classless. He has no discernable accent, dresses plainly, likes cooking and classical music and lives in nondescript surroundings. It is only his military rank, that of sergeant, that enables us to make any kind of judgement on his social status.
I think this is part of the enduring appeal of the film. Although the Dalbys of this world are long gone, Palmer would not be out of place in 2003, in fact the Palmers of this world are now the norm in many positions of British authority.
Overall a fascinating period piece but one which has worn well.
Michael Caines first outing as secret agent Harry Palmer is set in 60's
This is not the Psychedelic London of Austin Powers or the Beatles, neither
is it the sophisticated aristocratic London of James Bond. This London is
drab and populated by civil servants & bedsits. This London is still coming
to terms with the end of World War II and the advent of a modern
Working Class Palmer is an unwilling Home Office agent with criminal tendencies who is more interested in a pay rise so that he can indulge his true passion, gourmet cooking, than serving his country. His superiors, Ross (played by Guy Doleman) & Dalby (Played by Nigel Green) represent a microcosm of the British Upper & Lower Middle Classes. Palmer is clearly more cultured in his appreciation of food, music(Mozart & Bach) & women, "I like Birds Best" Palmer admits to Courtney played by Sue Lloyd (of Crossroads fame in UK).
Palmers superiors appear uninterested in the fate of their subordinates and this is one reason why the character of Palmer works so well, we are him, he lives our lives and we want him to win through. This perspective is aided by the stunning photography that uses every conceivable camera angle (even views from a light bulb!) to see the world from the characters perspective.
Look out for the supermarket scene between Ross and Palmer, my vote for the most violent use of a supermarket Trolley in a movie.
As Palmer slowly unravels the mysterious disappearance of top government scientists it becomes clear that there is someone close to the top of the British Secret service acting as a double agent. Who is it, Ross or Dalby? Who is Courtney, Palmers love interest, working for?
In the background is a rather sinister looking CIA, who always appear to be one step ahead of the Brits. (A reference to the decline of Britian as a world power and its reliance on America?) Wether intentional or not, this film has captured a London of the 60's that was going through substantial social change, gone are the class paradigms that suggest that the working class could never be cultured, gone is is the unquestioning loyalty to the upper class. This world was forever changed after the war. This is a film I can watch time and time again, if only to watch the title sequence as Palmer gets up for work as if he is going to just another office job.
This is a stylish movie and one of the greatest British films ever made. If you havn't seen it watch it now!
This film is, in a word, fantastic. Caine plays a British secret service agent who is assigned to find out who is brainwashing the country's top scientists. This is an interesting slant on the usual cold war thriller plots and is much more believable than James Bond films, although it lacks the latter's explosive action. this is the antithesis of Bond as Caine lives on a meagre wage, has a bedsitting flat and does his own shopping! He also wears glasses and in one scene, chats up his female work colleague whilst cooking. The plot is also a lot more grown-up than its Bond counterpart - there are no cat stroking madmen intent on world domination. What makes the film is the idiosyncratic camera angles and the grainy film quality which adds to the oppressive cold war drama. The brainwashing scene is quite amusing and cliched by todays standards with psychodelic images, trippy music and "You-are-getting-sleepy..." type-quotes. Guy Doleman and Nigel Green head up a brilliant supporting cast which include a few familiar British faces. It is interesting to note that the film was produced by the same people who bring Bond to the screen and even the excellent soundtrack is courtesy of John Barry.
London, in the early 60s, was captured by Sidney Furie in all its
splendor. One of the best things in the movie is the fantastic camera
work by its cinematographer, Otto Heller. The director and his
cameraman place the camera as a sort of "peeping Tom" device. Mr. Furie
and Mr. Heller takes us along to spy on Harry Palmer in this satisfying
adaptation of Len Deighton's novel. The musical score by John Barry is
another element that works well with one is witnessing.
Harry Palmer came alive the way Michael Caine played him. Palmer is a man from humble origins, in sharp contrast with the rest of the people he works for, who are clearly highly educated and who look down on this man because he is different. Mr. Caine is versatile actor whose take on Harry was right on the money. We can't do anything but admire him for making this man so approachable and believable.
The film was blessed with an excellent cast. Nigel Green, who plays Major Dalby makes his character come true with little effort. So does Guy Doleman as Col. Ross. Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, and the rest of the actors give amazing performances.
"The Ipcress File" shows us what London looked like in the sixties. It hasn't changed that much, but all the exteriors used in the film is a joy to watch. That speaks volumes of Otto Heller who had an eye for what to photograph, as everything fit nicely into the context of the film.
Having read the novel, I can tell you that this film follows the book even
less than most so-called film adaptations. Even secret agent Harry Palmer's
incarceration in what he thinks is Eastern Europe has many differences to
the version in the book. The novel includes scenes in Lebanon and an
American Pacific base, while this film takes place entirely in
At one stage, Deighton's unnamed anti-hero even states that `my name isn't Harry'.
That said this is still a brilliant Cold War drama and the film does retain elements of Deighton's novel: his world of espionage is one of draughty back street offices, red tape and limited budgets. When he is told that he is being transferred to another intelligence unit, one of Palmer's first questions is if he will get any more money. There is also the rivalry between intelligence departments and with the Americans: people working together with gritted teeth rather than devoted camaraderie against a common enemy.
Michael Caine is well cast as cockney Army Sergeant Harry Palmer, a gourmet anti-hero caught up in the Great Game of espionage because the alternative was prison. As well as a smug and double-dealing enemy like Erik Grantby (Frank Gatliff), Palmer has to cope with bureaucracy, a measly pay and distrusting superiors like Major Dalby (Nigel Green) and Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).
Although made by the same people who produced the James Bond films, this could not be more different. In contrast to Bond's life as a millionaire playboy, Palmer lives in an East End flat, has to do his own shopping and cooking, has limited resources and budgets and never-ending paperwork.
Gordon Jackson also lends good support as Jock Carswell, the only fellow agent whom Palmer can trust or likes; Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) has an affair with Palmer, but is really keeping tabs on him. In the original novel Carswell is another bureaucrat a la Dalby and Ross for whom the unnamed narrator has little time for. Jackson's character is actually based on Carswell's assistant Murray.
When eminent British scientist Dr Radcliffe is kidnapped off a train in
broad daylight, the Secret Service make the super spy known only as
'Bluejay' their number one priority with Radcliffe being the 17th
scientist to go missing. With the boost in manpower, Harry Palmer finds
himself taken off surveillance duties and put into a new unit under
Major Dalby to find Radcliffe and capture Bluejay. Never one for
following the rules, Palmer struggles to keep up to date with his
paperwork while trying to make progress in the mission the
bureaucracy making his job as hard as the opposite side. However soon
he makes progress and finds himself drawn into a deadly web involving
treachery, American agents and a plan to 'brain drain' the UK and
weaken its powers.
Although it has dated in some regards, The Ipcress File stands up well as a sort of answer to the Bond ideal of the British Secret Service. While it is much more fun to have a series of slick action moves and fantasy plots, this film's focus on structure and managers is much more realistic (one assumes) and also allows for a solid, if unspectacular, story but also some amusing digs at the civil service. The plot moves slowly but is still an engaging thriller even if it slowly unfolds rather than explodes along while this may put off many who prefer things to go 'bang' every few minutes I found it to be enjoyable and quite engaging. On top of this the film pokes fun at the UK civil service with a great deal of relish (but not sticking out as doing so). I have worked in a council and a Government funded charity and can confirm that this aspect of the film has not dated the UK still is very much to do with paperwork and having all the forms filled in correctly, for example tried to fill in any tax forms lately?! The film makes good sport of this aspect of Palmer's job and shows the fussy management structure of his department as being almost as much of a threat to national security as Bluejay himself is!
The cast is pretty good but it is Michael Caine's film all the way. He is suitably acerbic in his wit and has the browbeaten look many of us get when we feel we are being stopped from 'doing our jobs' by having to spend too much time filling in forms! However, while also still making this point, Caine still makes Palmer effective enough for the audience to get behind him and still see him as a spy and the fact that Caine always brings his own screen presence to the role helps as well. Support is also good from Green, Doleman, Gatliff and Jackson but Caine is the one you'll remember.
Overall this is not a great film but it is a good one. When viewed alongside other spy thrillers this one will appear very slow but I still found the story to be enjoyable if low key. The portrayal of the civil service as one of paperwork and managers adds a nice layer to a story that is already pretty good in its own right. Not to everyone's taste and it helps if you can appreciate Palmer's situation but it is a good espionage tale that rewards patience with a good story that is happily lacking in Hollywood excesses and empty spectacle.
I got the rare chance to see this film recently on Turner Classic Movies one afternoon and I was completely blown away by what I saw. This was the first of three films to depicted the normal activities and dangerous and extreme situations of British intelligence agent Harry Palmer(played by Michael Caine who became an international star with his portrayal of the working stiff/British spy). This was an espionage thriller that went straight by the book and then some which is based on Len Deighton's best selling novel. This was in no way compare to the James Bond spy flicks that came out the same time as this one,but this was totally different and for a very good reason. Palmer was a 9 to 5 stiff who was going by a measly paycheck,meeting in drab locations and of course has to sign for everything he gets including getting an issued gun and also getting transportation to get to and from his assignments and so forth as the story proceeds. You don't know whether not to like or dislike the character as he is in constant danger at every turn as his closest friends he meets at the office becomes his deadliest enemies out to kill him at any cost with an unglamourous death in the wings as you the viewer be grabbing your seat and hoping the outcome will end up with. Caine's performance as the drab agent is a must see and it also concludes toward the end of who the villain is and who is trying to frame him as well as kill him. Cliffhanging suspense! This was one of the most tense and stylish thriller of all time which in one point makes it so "realistic" that makes it distinctive from all the others in its genre. While British agent 007 was fantasy,Palmer was real and down to earth and it shows. A working class Joe. Caine goes on to make two more Palmer films that were not as successful as the first one;"Funeral in Berlin"(1966),and the last one " The Billion Dollar Brain"(1969),but in all this one was a gem of a good spy flick.
A fantastic 60s spy thriller. No flashy special effects, just dark
edge of the seat suspense and high quality acting and screenplay.
It's Michael Caine at his best. It's probably the best of the Harry palmer series, but I haven't seen the whole set yet.
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