John Preston is a British Agent with the task of preventing the Russians detonating a nuclear explosion next to an American base in the UK. The Russians are hoping this will shatter the "special relationship" between the two countries.
Following the suicide of an elderly Jewish man, a journalist in possession of the man's diary investigates the alleged sighting of a former S.S. Captain, who commanded a concentration camp during World War II.
Several leading Western scientists have been kidnapped only to reappear a fews days later. Unfortunately, each scientist has been brainwashed and is now completely useless. The British send Agent Harry Palmer to investigate. Palmer is surprised to be selected for such a mission (considering his past) and believes he has been chosen because he is expendable.Written by
Dave Jenkins <email@example.com>
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 The glamorous stereotypes of 007 have been replaced by the grinding, self effacing reality of the civil service, with its believable day to day grind.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.
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