June 24, 2011

THE IPCRESS FILE (1965) - stylish Michael Caine spy thriller

(1965, UK)

My name... is Harry Palmer

A taut thriller that's about stylish visuals as much as plot. This carefully paced Cold War spy story, based on Len Deighton's bestseller, is given an edge by pushing the camerawork into oblique compositions. These aren't the same techniques used by Hitchcock, who precisely placed his camera to optimise the storytelling, infer insight into the character or offer wry comment. Instead this is style over content... that works. The camera simply won't conform to the norm and constantly uses unusual angles, as if it's playing cat and mouse with the subject, peering over objects in deep focus, spying through phone boxes, carefully-composed dutch angles...

Camerawork is currently all about movement, twitchy and handheld, even when the subject is static. The camera in The Ipcress File is mainly static, but the compositions are dynamic. It's visually exciting and finally, finally, finally seeing this in 2.35 widescreen was really rewarding after decades of cramped TV screenings.

The Ipcress File was originally sold as a realistic alternative to the Playboy fantasy action/adventure espionage lifestyle that James Bond represented. It was released earlier in the year to the exceptionally lavish Sean Connery outing, Thunderball, the fourth in the series. In contrast to 007, author Len Deighton's realistic cold warrior, Harry Palmer, is a badly-paid civil servant. He may have a licence to kill and luck with the ladies, but he also has a tiny flat, cooks for himself, keeps a cat and, gulp, wears glasses. No glamorous international jetsetting, he's trapsing around London (all shot on location). His spy work includes days of listening to phone taps, boring stakeouts and scrabbling in filing cabinets for clues. When he finally gets a lead, is the danger worth the money?

Hedging their bets, this very un-Bond spy movie has many of the regular creative talents from the Bond franchise. Producer Harry Salzman, production designer Ken Adam (just as happy visualising shabby bedsits as he was designing gadget cars and villainous volcanoes), editor Peter Hunt (who pioneered the fast-cutting action for the franchise and soon started directing Bonds), and of course composer John Barry.

While he'd also scored From Russia With Love and Goldfinger, this doesn't sound like a Bond score at all. A slow, brittle theme that gets inside your brain with repetition, is similar to the simple theme from the The Third Man (that was played on an echoey zither). This dramatic low-key score established Barry as a movie composer with an impressive range, ensuring a ridiculously busy schedule for decades to come. The soundtrack is as famous as the film.

Sidney J. Furie directed this prestigious project after an eclectic mix of British films. Horrors Doctor Blood's Coffin (reviewed here) and The Snake Woman, and two successful Cliff Richard musicals wouldn't have made him an obvious choice. But courtroom drama The Boys and widescreen 'kitchen sink' biker tale The Leather Boys must have helped.

While I've enthused about the aesthetics, the script and the cast are just as impressive. This was Michael Caine first starring role and he concreted his star power with another success in Alfie the following year. He's passed from department to department by his superiors, playing a deadly game of chess with their staff. The twists and turns of a simple case explore the confusion and endless subterfuges of the many players in post World War 2 European espionage. The mystery is to find out what 'Ipcress' is all about. All I'll say is that it sounds like an evil Tardis...

Guy Doleman, who was about to play a minor Bond villain in Thunderball, is superb as Harry's long-suffering chief. Nigel Green is more terse - he often played steely authority figures and police inspectors, and is my favourite incarnation of Inspector Nayland Smith, in The Face of Fu Manchu. He also took on super-spy Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew, embraced Countess Dracula, and brought the house down in The Ruling Class.

Sue Lloyd provides intelligent glamour - the actress usually got stuck in comedies and TV secret agent action. A memorable departure was the early slasher shocker Corruption in which she played Peter Cushing's disfigured wife. Here she looks like she could have beaten Jill St John to the role of Tiffany Case, though her accent is irresistibly British.

The success of The Ipcress File and its characters quickly lead to two more sequels, Funeral In Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), then two further tired ones in the 1990s produced by the late Harry Alan Towers, Bullet To Beijing and Midnight In St Petersburg.

I last tried to watch this on TV when it had been cropped to 16:9 and found it no more watchable than the 1.33 pan-and-scan cropping it used to have - the camera compositions are so carefully balanced you need to see the whole picture. The region 1 anamorphic DVD from Anchor Bay that I watched (above) was its 2.35 widescreen debut, and there's a director's commentary on there as well, but the release is marred by very busy video compression artifacts, especially in low-light scenes.

This problem is worsened by the original negative being grainy - it was shot 'two-perf' 35mm (Techniscope) effectively halving the quality of 35mm. So I'm now going to double-dip for the ITV blu-ray transfer in the UK, which also offers a 5.1 mix (and lousy cover art). A quick look confirmed that the compression artifacts are absent, though the grain is more noticeable. I'm happy that the grain hasn't been digitally lessened - if a negative is grainy, that's how it's always been seen in cinemas.

DVD Beaver compared the UK special edition (with a bonus disc of extras) to the UK blu-ray, with a generous selection of spoilery screengrabs.

My review of another Harry Palmer movie starring Michael Caine - Billion Dollar Brain, directed by Ken Russell.


  1. I have the bluray. It's a shame it doesn't have any any extras, but it was a no-brainer for me since I had never bought the film on DVD, though I think I still have my old laserdisc which had an audio commentary, if I remember correctly.

  2. What a great looking film, so well photographed. I believe it had the first underground car park scene in any movie!