Tuesday, 26 April 2011

The Ipcress File: 1965

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In November 1962, shortly after the release of Dr. No (d. Terence Young, 1962), Len Deighton's spy novel The Ipcress File was published to enormous critical acclaim and brisk sales. Producers Harry Saltzman andAlbert Broccoli approached Deighton to script the next Bond film From Russia with Love (d. Young, 1963). Although little of his work was used,Saltzman eventually decided to use Deighton's novel, and its sequels, as the basis for a new series of spy movies.
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The Ipcress File (d. Sidney J. Furie, 1965) was designed to be in direct contrast to the Bond adventures, although Saltzman ended up employing much of the same production staff, including production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt and composer John Barry. Superficially, there are many similarities, even to the extent of beginning the film with a dramatic pre-credit sequence. Like Bond, the hero is clearly his own man, has a taste for fine foods and is popular with women, and even carries a non-standard-issue weapon. But the similarities end there. The protagonist, named Harry Palmer in the film (the book's narrator is anonymous), wears spectacles, shops in a supermarket (still a novelty in 1965) and is a sergeant working off a two-year sentence for black market activities in Berlin.
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Deighton took the Ian Fleming spy formula and grafted on the anti-authority attitude, first person narration and wisecracking dialogue of the 1930s and '40s hard-boiled detective novels of Dashiell Hammett andRaymond Chandler. Director Sidney J. Furie and cinematographer Otto Heller adopted an equivalent visual style, using distorting lenses, unusual angles and high contrast photography. Essentially they used the noir style of 1940s Hollywood thrillers to tell a story set in 1960s swinging London. In addition, Furie and Heller took their cue from Palmer's poor eyesight. The camera is often out of focus, or shoots through objects, such as a pair of cymbals, lampshades, a parking meter and even a keyhole, creating a visually abstract world that contrasts with the otherwise gritty and realistic look of the film.
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Although he had already played a supporting role in Zulu (Cy Enfield, 1964) and had appeared in a few other films, Michael Caine's career really took off with his starring role in Ipcress. He would reprise the role of Harry Palmer in two interesting though inferior sequels, Funeral in Berlin (d. Guy Hamilton, 1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (d. Ken Russell, 1967).



Published by


Volume 32, No.376, May 1965, pages 70-1


Intelligence man Harry Palmer is transferred from the military discipline of Major Ross's unit to the more casual civilian outfit run by Dalby. Their job is to investigate a "brain drain" among scientists, and to recover one particular missing scientist, Radcliffe, kidnapped from a train after the murder of his bodyguard. Palmer gets a lead to a man with the code-name Bluejay, the only crook likely to be dealing in the sort of merchandise Radcliffe represents. Although this trail peters out, another clue encourages Palmer to mount a security raid on a deserted London factory. Radcliffe is still missing, but they find a piece of recording tape with the word "Ipcress" punched on it. Meanwhile, Dalby has fixed things up with Bluejay, and the scientist (brainwashed, as is later discovered) is exchanged for £25,000 cash down. During this operation, Palmer accidentally shoots an American agent who has been keeping a watch on all parties. One of Dalby's unit cracks the Ipcress mystery, and is promptly murdered. A frame-up is arranged for Palmer himself, when another C.I.A. man is killed in his flat. Palmer takes to his heels, but is kidnapped by the opposition and delivered to the derelict factory (carefully disguised as a Balkan gaol) to be put through the brainwashing processes used on the scientists. Eventually he escapes, and summons both his employers, Dalby and Ross, to a showdown at the factory. Dalby, revealing himself as the traitor, is shot dead when he goes for his gun.

It is almost touching to see the care that has gone into establishing the anti-hero of the spy game, the man who will show us what goes on behind the 007 facade. Spectacles, London accent, taste for cookery and Mozart, supermarket shopper, hater of authority - Palmer's characteristics might have been laid down by a computer. When it comes to the point, however, it's off with the spectacles and on with the old Bond ability to withstand torture and also to escape at will (why wait to be tortured first?) from the guarded hide-out. And in fact, with Mr. Saltzman in command, and with John Barry and Ken Adam of the Goldfinger équipe both much in evidence, it is not exactly surprising that new-style spies look rather like the old lot. Mr. Adam's sets are, as usual, fine. His personality is beginning to come through so strongly that, when the film stages the exchange of the scientist in the atmospheric location of the big underground garage off Park Lane, one would be quite prepared to believe that he had designed that too.

Sidney Furie's direction is unremittingly mannered, and almost passionately concerned with the finding of odd camera angles: shots through clashing cymbals, or the tops of parking meters, have a kind of wearisome charm. Nor does the film really get very far in its effort to show intelligence men monotonously labouring among files and forms, when the office scenes are shot and recorded with such aggressive emphasis as to suggest that a gunman is concealed behind every filing cabinet. It is all a kind of sophisticated game, enjoying (like Mr. Deighton's own novel) its familiarity with the jargon of the trade and its quirks of characterisation, and tending to lose sight (also like Mr. Deighton's novel) of the thrills. An easy film to criticise; but also an easy film to be amused by, at least as far as its central performances, its minor jokes (villain's henchman caught in the sinister act of feeding a parking meter), and its London locations are concerned.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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