With its obsequious spy masters wielding absolute power from behind a veil of diabolical secrecy, director Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File (1965) aspires – and mostly delivers – on its promise to be the ultimate counterintelligence non-Bond espionage thriller of the 1960’s. Bill Canaway and James Doran’s screenplay is remarkably faithful to Leonard Cyril Deighton’s profoundly disturbing novel. Deighton, a British military historian, cookery writer, graphic artist and novelist, perhaps never intended to find everlasting fame in any of the aforementioned professions; his anti-social alter ego, Harry Palmer remaining a nameless enigma for almost half of the first of four novels, featuring this decidedly uncharismatic protagonist. In retrospect, The Ipcress File is something of a response piece to the James Bond franchise.
Produced by Harry Saltzman - half the team responsible for Sean Connery’s magnificent debut as MI6’s 007; super spy extraordinaire - Saltzman was perhaps already conscious of the fact he was losing his creative toehold in the Bond franchise to co-founder, Albert R. ‘Cubby’ Broccoli; the decidedly more charismatic showman. As portrayed by Michael Caine, Harry Palmer is the antithesis of James Bond; decidedly dour, unglamorous and not particularly adept at his job; a man of conscience, who allows loyalty to cloud his better judgment. In retrospect, Palmer is Saltzman’s doppelgänger; the man who would be king, if only he could figure out where he mislaid his crown. Alas, for Saltzman, the road to success would be paved with very crooked stones; never quite interlocking as they should. By 1974, Saltzman was out of the movie business, ruined by it, in fact; his own failure to produce a bona fide hit independent of his co-productions with Broccoli eventually impacting his credibility with investors.
The Ipcress File is a thoroughly perplexing and fairly monumental work of daring understatement; Otto Heller’s no-nonsense cinematography, shot under naturalistic lighting conditions, exquisitely complimented by John Barry’s rather bizarre underscore; part homage to the swingin’ sixties mod scene, yet with a queer undercurrent of foreboding unlike anything heard in a James Bond movie. Barry may not have written the James Bond theme, but he orchestrated the iconic Bond sound for decades to come. For The Ipcress File, Barry delves into decidedly less thematic underscoring.
There is no ‘Harry Palmer’ theme, as example, and no reoccurring leitmotif to prompt the audience as to what will happen next. Instead, Barry relies almost exclusively on an ever-evolving series of chords, deftly repeated with increasing variations. Like the Canaway/Doran screenplay, we are never entirely certain where Barry’s musical journey is bound; a sense of the uncanny in the everyday brought forth by an unsettling lack of compliance with traditional underscoring techniques. It all works spectacularly well and to the film’s advantage.
The Ipcress File is a tale of espionage at the highest levels of government; of rogue elements conspiring to brainwash their own; a covert operation not even our protagonist is certain exists until he accidentally stumbles across the holy grail and is forced – almost - to pay the supreme price for his meddling. The word ‘Ipcress’ is a foreshortening; expanded as the Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress methodology for mind control. Michael Caine’s laconic loner is the un-Bond; a deviously unsympathetic cockney scamp who refuses to surrender his investigation, despite the fact it continues to lead him from one proverbial dead end to the next without much hope for culminating in a successful resolution.
Indeed, there is no harrowing, drawn out chase sequence in The Ipcress File; no death-defying leaps from tall buildings or carnage inflicted with various modes of moving transportation and/or weaponry. This isn’t the Hollywood-ized version of the British spy; rather - and arguably – the real thing; critiquing this covert club as they actually are; bookish, unassuming, nameless and forgettable faces, capable of blending into any crowd.
Today, Caine’s cockney scrapper is justly celebrated for his rakish ‘charm’; intentionally glib, working class, tough as nails, and, not above manipulating the variables to suit his own interpretation of the assignment at hand. Harry Palmer can’t be bought. This makes him the ideal agent; also, ironically, the man to fear by the power structure seeking to keep him in the dark even as they deceitfully allow him latitude to get closer to the truth. You have to love a guy who’s so morally conflicted he would toil in the trenches for Queen and country while miserably detesting the machinery and the exercise. Is Harry Palmer a glutton for punishment? Perhaps, although at some base level, the work must be very satisfying for his ego. After all, looks can be very deceiving. In his Coke-bottle glasses and rumpled suits, Harry Palmer looks like an accountant. But he thinks like a traitor and hangs on like a pit bull; a tantalizing anomaly in conflict with our built-in expectations of the super spy.
The Ipcress File opens with the startling disappearance of Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards); a scientist kidnapped right under the nose of his security escort (Howell Evans); later found murdered and stuffed in the baggage rack at the train station after Radcliffe has already been replaced with a look-alike. Enter Harry Palmer; a tastily sullen British Army Sergeant with a criminal past, presently toiling for the Ministry of Defense. Summoned by leading operative, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), Palmer is told he is being transferred to another section overseen by Major Dalby (Nigel Green). Ross suspects a rogue element in the organization. In the past twelve months sixteen of their leading scientists have inexplicably dropped off the face of the earth; their vacancies leaving Dalby’s position precariously hanging in the balance. The crux of the matter is simple: Dalby needs Radcliffe back.
Palmer accepts his new assignment, as the replacement for the dead security point man, befriending fellow operative, Jock Carswell (Gordon Jackson) at his first departmental meeting. Dalby’s debriefing of Radcliffe’s disappearance is brief but to the point. Dalby suspects Erich Ashley Grantby – codename ‘Bluejay’ (Frank Gatliff) of conspiracy: also, his chief of staff, codename ‘Housemartin’ (Oliver Macgreevy). Exploiting an old Scotland Yard connection, Palmer locates Grantby, who feeds him a bogus contact number. Palmer rings it, learns he’s been set up, and tries in vain to prevent Grantby from escaping. Instead, Housemartin attacks Palmer and the two cohorts get away. Sometime later, Carswell and Palmer get wind that Housemartin has been arrested. However, when they reach the police station, the pair learns two other men have already been there, impersonating them to gain access to Housemartin’s cell. It’s too late. Housemartin has been murdered to keep him silent; a dead end – literally.
Palmer suspects Radcliffe is being held against his will at a factory near where Housemartin was picked up. However, on Dalby’s orders, a cursory investigation of the abandoned facility yields few clues, apart from a frayed bit of audio tape marked ‘Ipcress’. Alas, when played back, the recording produces only a meaningless and very garbled noise. Working against the clock, Palmer reestablishes contact with Grantby; a trade for Radcliffe’s successful release. The exchange goes according to plan, except Palmer accidentally shoots a CIA agent hiding in the shadows. As luck would have it, the agent was tailing Grantby too, and Palmer begins to suspect he’s being set up to take the fall for another botched sting operation; another CIA operative, threatening to kill him if he discovers his partner’s death was no accident.
Not long after Radcliffe’s safe return it becomes apparent something has happened to his mind. Whatever intelligence Radcliffe was working on has been systematically erased from his memory. Carswell discovers a book on IPCRESS he believes explains what has happened to Radcliffe and the other scientists. Carswell borrows Palmer’s car to test his theory on Radcliffe. Regrettably, he is killed en route to his destination. Believing he was to have been the intended target, Palmer returns to his flat, only to discover the body of the other CIA agent sprawled across his bed. Too little/too late, Palmer also realizes someone has stolen the Ipcress file from his locked desk drawer. Painted into the proverbial corner, Palmer confides his theories to Dalby, suspecting Ross as the mole; citing a previous encounter where Ross asked Palmer to microfilm the Ipcress file in secrecy. At their clandestine rendezvous, Dalby urges Palmer to disappear – at least, for a while. He’s too hot to handle or debrief.
For old-time sake, Palmer makes a pit stop at Jean Courtney’s (Sue Lloyd) apartment. Another operative – presumably, in the Dalby camp - Jean had been getting hot and heavy with Palmer for some time. Regrettably, Palmer is much too close to the truth to actually see it: Jean is working for Dalby. Palmer discovers her treachery too late; taken hostage on the midnight train to Paris and awakening hours later in a dank prison cell, presumably in Albania. After several days of sleep deprivation, denied adequate food and necessary warmth, Palmer is reintroduced to Grantby. Having read the Ipcress file, Palmer now realizes Grantby intends to wear down his mental resolve; a precursor to the applied mind-warping experiment about to take place. Strapped to a wheelchair and placed in a claustrophobic cube into which bizarre projections of light and sound are applied, along with Grantby’s voice attempting hypnotherapy, Palmer uses extreme pain, pressing a rusty nail into the palm of his hand, to distract from falling under the Ipcress’ spell.
It’s no use. Grantby’s electronic sights and sounds eventually wear Palmer down. He is programmed with a ‘trigger phrase’ – “Listen to me” – that will allow any command to be force fed into his subconscious thereafter. Several days later, Palmer feigns illness in his prison cell. But the guards coming to investigate are instead knocked senseless as Palmer makes a daring escape through this labyrinth, scaling its high walls, only to discover he is not in Albania, but actually, downtown London. Telephoning Dalby to reveal his situation, Palmer is unaware Dalby and Grantby are working together; Dalby using Grantby’s trigger phrase to get Palmer to summon Ross to the warehouse. But has the hypno-therapy really taken hold as it should? For upon their arrival to the warehouse, both Dalby and Ross are held at gunpoint by Palmer as he attempts to sort out who really murdered Carswell.
Ross confides in Palmer: he was only testing him when asked to microfilm the Ipcress file. Dalby invokes the trigger phrase, ordering Palmer to ‘kill the traitor now’. Instead, Palmer strikes his wavering fist against a piece of metal, the intense pain from his open wound reawakening the reality that his thoughts are being manipulated by Dalby. Palmer shoots Dalby dead, reproaching Ross for endangering his life. Far from sympathetic, Ross rather callously explains to Palmer that it’s all just part of his job. Our story concludes with Palmer and Ross casually walking away together, leaving Dalby’s lifeless remains on the warehouse floor.
The Ipcress File is not your traditional spy thriller. Rather, it is a sustained character study and methodical deconstruction of the game of espionage; expertly paced and superbly realized by all of its principal players. The Canaway/Doran screenplay is a minor masterpiece; eschewing any and all clichés associated with the formulaic movie thriller; concocting and maintaining its own level of unique suspense. Michael Caine is, of course, the star; although, in his own understated way, he quietly pulls us into his performance; the saucy and aloof, Harry Palmer gradually growing on us - like fungus on a tree. Palmer is an acquired taste, best sampled without any preconceived notions about ‘who’ and ‘what’ is a British spy. Otto Heller’s cinematography captures Palmer’s askew world; exploiting extreme angles and over-the-shoulder dialogue exchanges, often with the most benign foreground props and/or half faces in extreme close-up obscuring at least part – if not most – of the shot. It all adds to the movie’s heightened level of disturbing curiosity; also, to the downward spiral of Palmer’s tenuous toehold on this runaway investigation.
ITV Home Video has mislabeled this Blu-ray release as ‘Region B2’ when in actuality it is a ‘Region Free’ disc. Let’s just begin by saying this disc looks almost fabulous; contrast, color-reproduction and clarity all where they should be. Curiously, ITV hasn’t advertised this transfer as ‘restored’ when it so obviously has gone through some sort of digital cleanup. Colors are refined, favoring a blue/green and beige/brown color palette, accurately recapturing the essential ‘washed out’ quality and mood of Otto Heller’s original cinematography. Film grain looks fairly accurate, although there are a few brief instances where it can seem just a tad thicker than expected. So what’s my biggest beef with this transfer? Well, a lot of video-based noise; mostly during sequences shot outdoors in broad daylight. A lot of ringing halos around doors, windows, brick and mortar. Not terrible, and far more noticeable on bigger monitors. There’s also some edge enhancement. Honestly, by now this anomaly ought to have been eradicated from the realm of video mastering. Note to digital compression artists around the world: when in doubt about whether or not to artificially sharpen a film-based image – DON’T DO IT!!!
But, I digress. We get two audio tracks on The Ipcress File – neither DTS lossless. There’s a Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0, the latter more closely approximating the original theatrical release. Both tracks do the film justice; the 5.1 obviously containing more spatial separation in side and rear channels. As already state, The Ipcress File is not a very ‘sound savvy’ production. There’s little to no opportunity for SFX whizzing past your side and rear channel speakers. So, either sound mix herein does a very fine job of maintaining the integrity of this dialogue-driven movie. Again, ITV has obviously performed some sort of digital cleanup; no hiss or pop detected. Alas, ITV has scrimped on the extras again. We get a trailer and that’s it. Can’t say I approve, but otherwise I thought this Blu-ray gave a fairly faithful representation of what the original theatrical engagement must have looked like. Good stuff. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)