Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Ipcress File (1965)

The first of the Harry Palmer spy mysteries from 1965 that made Michael Caine a star. Based upon the bestseller by Len Deighton, it features the flabby, nearsighted spy investigating the kidnapping of notable British scientists. Solid scenes, including a scary brainwashing session, and tongue-firmly-in-British-cheek humor. Lots of camera play to emphasize Caine's myopia. The movie lead to Two sequels: "Funeral in Berlin" and "Billion Dollar Brain."

Harry Palmer, a sergeant working for a Ministry of Defence organisation, is summoned from a stakeout by his boss, Colonel Ross. Ross tells him he is to be transferred to a Home Office counter-espionage unit headed by Major Dalby. Palmer is replacing an agent killed that morning while trying unsuccessfully to prevent the kidnapping of Radcliffe, a British scientist. Dalby introduces his team, including Jean Courtney, who deliberately ignores him, and 'Jock' Carswell, who quickly befriends him. Dalby sends them to find Eric Ashby Grantby, a native of Albania, and his chief of staff, known only as 'Housemartin'. Dalby believes Radcliffe is being held for ransom and that Grantby must be responsible.

Using a Scotland Yard contact, Harry locates Grantby, who gives Harry a piece of paper with a contact number on it. Harry tries the number from a phone booth, but it doesn't work. He tries to stop Grantby leaving, but Housemartin attacks him and the two get away. Later that day, Harry goes home and finds that Jean has been sent there by Dalby to check up on him. The two become friends.

Some time later, Jock and Harry learn that Housemartin has been arrested, but by the time they reach the police station, they find that men impersonating them have killed him. A search of the warehouse where Housemartin was picked up reveals only a piece of audiotape marked 'IPCRESS'.

Shopping at a supermarket, Harry is approached by Ross, who asks him to spy on Dalby's activities. Harry refuses. Although Harry thinks Jean is spying for Ross, he decides to ignore it and soon they become lovers. Contact with Grantby is re-established and a deal struck for Radcliffe's safe return, but while the exchange goes as planned, Harry sees a man suddenly move towards them and fires. The dead man turns out to be a CIA agent who has also been following Grantby. Harry is threatened by another CIA operative, who says he will kill him if he discovers that the death was not a mistake.

Some days later, it becomes clear that while Radcliffe is physically unharmed, his mind has been affected and he can no longer function as a scientist. Jock tells Harry that he knows what IPCRESS means, showing him a book entitled 'Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex Under Stress'. The scientist has clearly been brainwashed. Jock borrows Harry's car to test his theory on Radcliffe, but he is killed before he reaches him. Harry realises that he must have been the intended target and decides to move in with Jean until the situation is resolved.

Returning to the office, he finds that the IPCRESS file compiled by Jock, relating to 17 other scientists, all of whom have also been brainwashed, has been stolen from his desk. Harry goes back to his flat to collect his belongings, and finds the body of the second CIA man. Believing he is being set up, he tells Dalby what has happened. Dalby tells him to leave town for a while. While on a train to Paris, Harry is apprehended by Grantby's men.

After several days in a cell and denied sleep, food and warmth, Harry is told that he has been taken to Albania. Having read the file, Harry realises that this treatment is part of the conditioning for the brainwashing procedures to come. During the procedure he clasps a nail taken from his cell in his closed fist to distract himself. After many sessions in which Harry is hypnotised and conditioned with electronic sounds and disorientating images, he appears to succumb. Grantby instills a trigger phrase that will make Harry act unconsciously against his will and follow any commands given to him.

Harry eventually overcomes his guard, takes his gun and escapes. Reaching the street, he realises he is still in London. He phones Dalby, who is actually in league with Grantby. Dalby uses the trigger phrase, making Harry call Ross to the warehouse. When Dalby and Ross arrive, Dalby again uses the trigger phrase to try to convince Harry that Ross is the traitor. Harry frees himself from the indoctrination by recalling the pain to his hand and shoots Dalby in self-defence.

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.

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.

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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