It’s finally back on Blu in Region 1, the ‘sixties spy movie beloved by enthusiasts that yearned for something a bit more substantial & nutritious than James Bond. This first Harry Palmer adventure seems even more perfect than when it was thanks to a great espionage recipe and quality ingredients. Michael Caine is sensational as the anti-007, the feel of London streets is intoxicating, and John Barry’s music score is beyond praise. Are Sidney Furie’s directorial mannerisms too show-offy, too fussy? I only raise the question to defend him.
The Ipcress File
KL Studio Classics
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date October 27, 2020 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards, Frank Gatliff, Thomas Baptiste, Oliver MacGreevy, Freda Bamford, David Glover, Mike Murray, Anthony Baird.
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Film Editor: Peter Hunt
Production Designer: Ken Adam
Original Music: John Barry
Written by W.H. Canaway, James Doran from the novel by Len Deighton
Produced by Harry Saltzman
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
The Ipcress File is a magical title — it makes the middle ’60s seem an even more fertile time for pop genre fun. Although we were gaga over James Bond at age twelve, and rabid collectors of the soundtrack albums (I can remember how UA records smelled), we certainly sampled the other spy offerings. We thought the Dean Martin Matt Helm movies were funny, even though they now seem tawdry and sloppily filmed. James Coburn was coolness unmatched in his first Derek Flint adventure. Fresh from his debut as one of the King’s Own in Zulu, Michael Caine became a uniquely charming, surprising secret agent man, combining humor, intelligence and good looks. His second hit picture, the best non-007 spy film of the 60s, confirmed his star status. Compared to the other spy fare it felt serious and adult.
The overachieving producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman launched the official 007 series but Saltzman made Len Deighton’s spy hero Harry Palmer his own. Len Deighton’s ‘Thinking Man’s James Bond’ originally had no name in the books; Saltzman and his star Michael Caine invented it in one of their first meetings.
Harry Palmer is the antithesis of 007. He wears glasses, prefers to cook for himself at home and operates in a naturalistic spy environment of dingy offices, carrying out drab assignments for overbearing taskmasters. Harry’s spy is more or less a ‘working class hero,’ which somehow befits Caine’s own background; the accent he uses is very close to his own Cockney accent. Harry’s personal dream is to be able to afford his own car. Basically a soldier who got caught pulling a black market scheme, he became a spy to avoid court-martial. As espionage work is done by devious and clever people, Harry’s army superiors thought him well qualified. In case the Harry Palmer series is new territory, there are three core 1960s Harry Palmer films, all produced by Harry Saltzman and all finally on Region A Blu-rays: this one, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain. Don’t hold out for a 3-film collection, as each is from a different studio.
London looks wet but cozy. Harry Palmer is working dull surveillance duty under Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), the army intelligence officer who ‘recruited’ him from prison. He’s reassigned to a smaller, more active intelligence group in a ramshackle building posing as an employment agency. Ross is not happy that Harry’s new boss, a bullying martinet named Dalby (Nigel Green) is a keen competitor. Dalby’s unit is trying to recover a kidnapped scientist and find out why scores of experts like him are suddenly disappearing or unaccountably becoming unable to function. Harry only seems to be a resentful slacker — he risks life and limb to solve the case and please his superiors. His biggest problem is trusting his shifty co-workers, especially agent Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd), who shows up at his flat for a lot more than Harry’s gourmet meals. Why are American C.I.A. agents threatening to kill Harry? And just what is that piece of recording tape with weird noises, and the word IPCRESS printed on it?
Unlike the majority of films that jumped on the 007 bandwagon The Ipcress File is not a spoof. Smugly insolent and emotionally insulated, Harry is a spy as working-stiff. The lad just wants to get ahead but is constantly reminded of his worthlessness by the stifling MI bureaucracy. The realistic setting is resolutely, agreeably English. His well-heeled bosses take tea breaks in top secret meetings, dislike the new American-style supermarkets and resent the pipe-smoking, poaching Yankee operatives. Dalby loves the Queen’s military marching band, especially their take on Mozart.
No sci-fi gadgets aid Palmer’s investigations; the very non-glamorous parking ticket bureau helps him track down his elusive quarry ‘Bluejay’ (Frank Gatliff). Harry also doesn’t encounter sexy enemy agents, and he doesn’t escape from a prison cell by crawling down a convenient heating vent. But when the rough stuff is dished out Harry can take it. He’s not a cockney braggart but a better man than the upscale ‘passed-over majors’ that order him about. We become totally immersed in Harry’s deglamorized, re-glamorized world in a way not afforded by the fantastic, sometimes cartoonish 007 adventures.
With Michael Caine ad-libbing little drolleries in some scenes, Harry Palmer is always excellent company. He’s forever trying out little bits of insolence with his bosses. Caine’s new idea is to give his action hero poor eyesight — what two-fisted hero wears glasses? The aloof Nigel Green and the dour Guy Doleman are excellent contrasts in disapproving, dissatisfied superiors. As befits the spy trade, Palmer can’t be sure if either of them really cares what happens to him. His only recourse is to poke sideways fun at them. He can’t go too far, as they have the power to return him to military prison with just a memorandum.
Palmer has the expected pals on the police force that he uses for information; he also has one colleague (Gordon Jackson) who seems uncomplicated and honest. Major Dalby’s female agent Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) is something else. Harry presumes she’s reporting on him to Dalby, just as Dalby worries that Harry is reporting back to Ross. Harry can’t be sure of any of his co-workers but has little choice but to trust them all. Anybody working with a group of company or school colleagues knows that kind of insecurity. We identify with Harry much more than we do the much more fanciful James Bond.
The Ipcress File got some unwelcome notice when Billy Wilder lambasted young Canadian director Sidney J. Furie’s eccentric camera style, saying Furie couldn’t shoot a scene without framing it through a fireplace or the back of a refrigerator. Wilder was coarse but accurate. There are no fireplaces on view but Furie’s camera compositions are some of the most ‘casually mannered’ ever. He pushes to an extreme the discovery by Elia Kazan that masking a ‘Scope composition focuses our attention on a selected part of the frame without enlarging it in a close-up. When Otto Heller’s shots aren’t extremely high-angled, low angled or tilted, they’re framed through every kind of foreground obstruction imaginable: lamps, doors, telephones. As much as 75% of the frame can be blotted out, forcing us to look over a shoulder or under an armpit to view a character.
This eccentric style was only made possible by shooting in the half-frame, non-anamorphic Techniscope format. CinemaScope and Panavision lenses had become very good by 1965, but they couldn’t do what a ‘flat’ lens could. Heller can shoot through an object just a couple of inches from his lens, but the flat optics keep the focus reasonable and the field of vision sharp and even. Ipcress was able to shoot in strange lighting situations (the underground garage) and still get a good exposure. Small hand-held cameras made shots possible in tight quarters. With the camera free to strafe desktops and shoot through mail slots, the film has a slightly ‘docu’ look to it as well.
What makes Wilder’s dissing of Sidney J. Furie irrelevant is that the gimmicky angles work very well for this particular movie. Compared to the ‘auteurist visions’ of the next generation of film school directors, Otto Heller’s work here looks relatively restrained. Furie’s screen often resembles a puzzle with pieces removed, exactly the situation Harry Palmer is facing. The shots are unlike the trendy ‘mod’ visions that soon became dated, embarrassing. The followup Harry Palmer films Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain have different directors and wildly different visual approaches. Only Harry’s character remains consistent, along with the occasional memorable bit part, like good old ‘Alice’ (Freda Bamford), the irreplaceable, chain-smoking front office operative.
In its own category of brilliance is John Barry’s terrific jazzy score. The Ipcress File now seems like an update on The Third Man, substituting ‘cool’ pre-Mod London for a ruined Vienna. In the 1960s the music choices gave various secret agent franchises their special identity. Although nothing topped Henry Mancini’s original theme for Peter Gunn, every secret agent show had its signature music — The Avengers, Secret Agent Man, I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. John Barry’s James Bond music was of course the benchmark to be measured against, but the composer outdid himself with The Ipcress File. Leaning more on his early jazz roots, he gives it the coolest, most laid-back secret agent theme ever. The soundtrack album is a terrific match with Barry’s music for The Knack, which was composed almost at the same time.
Some of the film’s more striking scenes are worth pointing out. When handed a generic scene, Furie will use clever camerawork to make it seem distinctive. Harry brawls with the dangerous-looking Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) on the steps of the Albert Hall, but instead of getting in close, the camera observes the whole thing from a distance, through the obscuring panes of a phone booth. (Wilder might complain, ‘whose POV is that?’) A prisoner exchange and rendezvous in an underground parking lot, with machine gun retainers moving in ritualized symmetrical patterns, has been imitated a hundred times since. A murder at a traffic intersection is a clear homage to Fritz Lang’s Mabuse Films. Lang reused a perfect long-distance killing from his 1932 The Testament of Dr. Mabuse in his own 1960 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. Here Furie restages Lang’s situation a third time, adding his own mark of cool understatement.
The film’s final act (no spoilers) sees Harry Palmer undergoing a sinister science-fiction brainwashing torture. The bravura sequence is a zooming, blurring, streaking visual assault on Harry’s senses. I’ve always wondered if this mind-warping Ipcress sequence inspired Douglas Trumbull’s game-changing slit-scan Star Gate effect that became the gotta-see factor in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Harry Palmer is certainly being taken on a kind of ‘trip,’ that’s for sure. The cutting in the two films is also similar, alternating jarring close-ups of an anguished character with the mind-bending visuals. As long as I’m running amuck inventing possible influences, perhaps Kubrick and Trumbull were also impressed by the vertiginous 65mm POV shots in Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, the racing scenes that felt so ‘participatory.’
The very welcome KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Ipcress File is a long-overdue Region A release of this marvelous movie, a gem that singlehandedly atones for ’60s ‘superspy’ cinema’s occasional tackiness and lapses of taste. The colorful image reveals more granularity than one would expect, but this is correct — the Techniscope half-frame format is undersized, like two 16mm film frames placed side by side. I’ve treasured an ITV Blu-ray from 2014 that I think looks fine, although DVD Beaver’s review wasn’t complimentary. I’d say that the color is a touch warmer on the new disc, but could tell no difference between the equally strong audio tracks.
Kino’s release has the good extras, which begin with two trailers, an archived interview with Ken Adam, four radio spots and a Trailers from Hell trailer with commentary. Troy Howarth and Daniel Kremer’s enthusiastic new audio commentary is a mix of information, biographies and conversational opinions. From an early Anchor Bay DVD comes an archival commentary with editor Peter Hunt and director Sidney J. Furie (who is still alive and with us). They share a hearty laugh when surprised by elements they’d forgotten, such as the reveal of the meaning of the word Ipcress. Their unhurried, agenda-free discussion brings out a number of fascinating facts, the kind that didn’t often find their way into print. Production designer Ken Adam didn’t create any iconic cavernous sets but managed to put his imprint on existing rooms and spaces mainly by emptying them of furniture. Hunt says he brought John Barry into the world of James Bond: he recommended Barry for Dr. No when director Terence Young called the first music score ‘mining disaster music’ and threw it out. Producer Harry Saltzman reportedly hated Furie and his oddball style and went so far as to bar him from the editing room. According to the director, Saltzman also excluded Furie from the film’s party at Cannes and even stole his British Academy Award for best picture! Peter Hunt tries but doesn’t quite get Furie to fess up to having had an affair with gorgeous Ipcress star Sue Lloyd.
But the real ‘gotta see’ extra is a 2006 interview with a spirited Michael Caine, who takes us through his happy days of becoming a star. He did Zulu almost for free. Ipcress not only paid well on a non-exclusive contract, it also got him his ‘in’ for his next starring role, Alfie, where he earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination.
Caine also explains the Len Deighton connection to Harry Palmer’s cooking skills — Deighton had a syndicated recipe cartoon in an English newspaper. ( ← ) Caine talks happily of the volcanic-tempered Saltzman, expresses happiness for getting the perfect springboard role — he was perfect for it — and laughs when he remembered the year where his career brightened up and everything turned out so well: “Everybody I knew was becoming famous!”
Back in 1999, reviewing a so-so DVD of the picture, correspondent Ian Dobson responded to my request to hear from someone who might know if Englishmen are as nostalgic for this picture as was a Californian who knows London (and most everything else) only through the movies. Mr. Dobson was kind enough to submit the following:
“Hello Glenn — It is a great film because it has its own style, which the review communicates very well. Unfortunately the TV pan & scan is the only way most people have seen it for over thirty years. The naturalistic acting style was unusual for an English colour widescreen movie then.
The challege was
1) how to use the widesceen frame in small English rooms, offices and supermarkets.
2) how to use colour without glamourising the drab setting.
3) how to be different to all the other ‘secret agent movies’ then in production worldwide.
The first English supermarkets were not large. The novelty was the range of stock and ‘self service.’ In the film you can see Ross is bemused by it all. The use of London Landmarks the Albert Hall, Trafalgar Square and the London Library to suggest understated traditional power is brilliant. If you live and work in London (which I do) you take them for granted and ignore them, so the film does too.
Each of the characters is well drawn so the story works for the international audience. I love the movie because all the actors you see onscreen have played the same stereotypes for years in British films but here they get to play them naturalistically. The film also captures the changes in the British caste / class system at the time. Women and the talented working class on the way up. Everyone else on the way down.
The film is now a wonderful memoir for anyone who remembers London of this period. So little traffic on the roads, so many parking spaces! Old Pounds, Shillings & Pence! Telephone operators! British Rail! No hordes of tourists/refugees from all over the world with identical American-style outfits, sneakers & mobile phones. A time when London was unmistakably English and not identical to every other city on the planet with world wide chain-stores selling identical goods. No MacDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Gap, Levis, Borders or Starbucks.
Your review communicates these ideas very well.”
— Twenty-one years later, I again thank Mr. Dobson. I’m not at all shy about recommending The Ipcress File. It would likely make the list of the hundred movies I’d save if a California wildfire took out my part of Los Angeles. After the 9.0 earthquake, of course.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Ipcress File
Supplements: Interview with Michael Caine; new audio commentary with Troy Howarth and Daniel Kremer; archived interview with Sidney J. Furie and Peter Hunt; archived interview with Ken Adam, Trailers from Hell trailer with Howard Rodman, four radio spots, two trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 10, 2020
Text © Copyright 2020 Glenn Erickson