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You didn’t come here to talk to me about button mushrooms and birds.

The Ipcress File
(1965)

(SPOILERS) It’s ironic that Harry Palmer is seen as the down-at-heel, scruffy sibling of James Bond (from then Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman) – the anti-Bond as Variety put it – since, in The Ipcress File at least, there may none of the opulence that comes with grand sets and villainous lairs, but it’s visually more stylish than any Bond movie, despite the drab London scenery and non-descript interiors (legendary Bond designer Ken Adam was nevertheless on hand to offer verisimilitude – he won the BAFTA over the also-nominated Goldfinger and “Cubby wouldn’t talk to me for the rest of the day”). Michael Caine’s career-making performance as kitchen-sink spy Harry Palmer may be the most obvious clue to the picture’s success (which included the sometimes-dubious honour of the BAFTA for Best British Film), but it’s Sidney J Furie’s direction that engraves it on your memory.

Ross: He’s a little insubordinate, but a good man.

That, and the fabulously jangly, cimbalom-driven John Barry score (“You’ve never seen a great movie with duff music” claimed Caine, just begging for examples where he’s proved wrong). Not everyone was impressed by Furie’s approach. While Variety generally rated the picture, it noted that Furie “sometimes… gets carried away into arty-crafty fields”, while Pauline Kael referred to it as “overwrought (and rather silly)”; it’s ironic that such an avowed De Palma advocate should have taken issue, as Furie’s approach strikes me very much akin to the results we might have seen had De Palma done a Le Carré adaptation (except Len Deighton – from whose novel this is adapted – delivers much more pulpy fun than Le Carré would ever serve up; spying is a serious business, not to be travelled lightly or frivolously).

Christopher Bray, author of bios on Caine and Connery, among others, expressed his own distaste for Furie’s approach in an essay for the Blu-ray. Predictably, it’s all gush for Caine, and how he manages to overcome his director’s gratuitous approach, with its “gimmicky framing and ponderous wide-angle shots”. Wait, there’s more: “Without Caine’s (admittedly highly stylised) naturalism, The Ipcress File would look and feel very badly dated”. Dated perhaps, since the approach is hardly common today (overt style tends to be out) but not remotely badly. He adds that “Caine never lets Furie’s more absurd camera set-ups put him off his stride”. He then effectively assumes anyone who likes it must have a taste deficit, and Caine is accordingly just being kind when he advocates Furie’s efforts: “less partial viewers (than Caine) have rarely been won over by his pyrotechnic style”.

Dalby: It isn’t usual to read a B107 to its subject, Palmer, but I’m going to set you straight. “Insubordinate, insolent, a trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies.”
Palmer: Yes, that’s a pretty fair appraisal – sir.

For some then, the relentless, flashy frenzy is simply too much, and I can understand that, but for me, the picture is consistent in its skewed signature that it’s as much a defining character as Palmer himself. Everything is off-beam, not quite right, in this paranoid milieu, and the Dutch angles – a level plane simply won’t do at all – and deep focus serve to emphasise the yarn as both heightened and unsettling. As Caine put it, “He films the whole movie as if someone else was watching him, and that was the idea”.

One might question how, with this versatility, Sidney J Furie ended up helming endless Iron Eagle movies – and the especially ignominious Superman IV: The Quest for Peace – particularly since he admits to being not in the slightest bit technically minded. The key ingredient appears to have been veteran DP Otto Heller (The Ladykillers, Peeping Tom), who imaginatively interpreted Furie’s demands (both Furie and Peter Hunt effusively sung Heller’s praises on the DVD commentary track). Reportedly, the elaborate approach taken was a consequence of issues with the script (going slow with a production filmed in sequence enabled rewrites, although Caine said that, even if nobody else did, “I liked the script. I thought it was great”). Heller also photographed the far less attention-seeking sequel Funeral in Berlin (with the decidedly un-experimental Goldfinger director Guy Hamilton calling the shots).

Also on hand, emphasising the crisp, lean telling – in contrast to Bond’s tendency to leisurely bloat by this point, even given he was supervising editor on Thunderball too – is editor Hunt (later the On Her Majesty’s Secret Service director, by leaps and bounds the best Bond movie, and the best shot one). Hunt assembled the initial cut without Furie present; the stylistic quirks of the shooting having led to tensions with the volatile Saltzman, who didn’t understand what he was going for. Fortunately, Hunt did: “the camera angles and style of direction actually drew the viewer in rather than excluding them” (unless you’re Christopher Bray). After shooting was finished, Saltzman barred Furie from the editing room – Hunt’s cut was almost exactly what Furie wanted, though – and excluded him from the Cannes premiere (Caine, while acknowledging his producer’s temperament, stressed that Saltzman was always very nice to him, releasing him from his seven-year contract following the picture’s success).

Palmer: I’d sooner have my automatic.
Dalby: You’ll use the Colt.
Palmer: I’ll use the Colt.

British spy movies tend to wear dourness as a badge of pride (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was the winner of the BAFTA the following year), which is commendable in its way, but The Ipcress File still feels as sharp as a tack and as fresh as when it was first released, in no small part because the robust screenplay (from WH Canaway and Z Cars veteran James Doran) is allied with a rarely summoned energy and flair. Furie proves you don’t need elaborate set pieces – or indeed very much in the way of typically heroic action – when intrigue drives the material and is backed up by a director intent to reinforce that.

Carswell: He seemed very pleased.
Palmer: Well, he’s got a right comical way of showing it.

And then there’s Caine – this was the movie that made him, although it was surely only a matter of an admittedly long time, given the way he seemingly knew everyone who was anyone in London by that point anyway (Deighton, Barry, Terence Stamp) – whose Palmer always has a ready quip in response to a reprimand from a superior (his cocky, breezy impudence is reflective of his (younger) generation, Beatles included), and makes no secret that he isn’t in this career for the sense of duty; he ends up in the MoD after being done for army black marketeering, and his priority on being moved from Ross’ (Guy Doleman) to Dalby’s (Nigel Green) section is “Any more money?” (he’s pleased that he’ll be able to purchase a new electric stove). But we quickly see that he has both initiative and little time for the wheels of bureaucracy (there’s an amusing emphasis on different file codes, requisitions and requests throughout).

Palmer: Courtney, I am going to cook you the best meal you have ever eaten.

And he likes cooking (“He looks like a fag” came protests from the US studio). And birds. As soon as he arrives in Dalby’s outfit, he sits himself next to Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd), whom he subsequently plies with whisky and Mozart (after first believing the intruder in his flat is out to murderise him). Alas, he gets the brush off for the last word in wooing, having doubtless seen Tom Jones (“No thanks, I’m not hungry”); he’s more successful second time round, though.

Ross: I think they’re playing very well.
Palmer: Tell me who wins.

One of my favourite scenes finds Ross, trying to get information on what’s going on in Dalby’s division, “bump into” Palmer in a supermarket, where the latter is shopping for button mushrooms – a reminder of an era where imports weren’t on tap, and so certain tinned goods were the height of luxury. Ross is, of course, reliably superior in tone, but it works both ways. Ross may be an upper (officer) class, but Palmer is an aesthete, and is later entirely unimpressed by an army band taking a stab at Mozart during a tête-à-tête; there are different sorts of snobbery in evidence.

The Ipcress File offers many memorable lo-fi sequences, from Palmer being led through a warren of rooms and passageways to his new post with Dalby, to the public library reading room scene in which he attempts to deal with Grantby/ Bluejay (Frank Gatliff) and the ensuing scuffle with Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy) shot from inside a telephone box. The plot is equal parts zeitgeist, taking in the brain drain (in contrast to the later Alternative 3, scientists are not disappearing to Mars) and MKUltra (IPCRESS itself is a brainwashing technique: Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress, rendering the scientists subjected to it useless) via a sound effect that suggests the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in overdrive, having first set up shop in Syd Barret’s head; it’s an effective aural shorthand for an assault on the senses, similar to the ‘proton-proton scattering device” Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) was working on when he was kidnapped, before being returned as damaged goods.

Dalby: Congratulations Palmer, you’ve just killed an American agent.

The screenplay is adept at remaining elusive with information – Jock Carswell (Gordon Jackson) happens (very conveniently) on the vital IPCRESS clue but then (less so) is shot before he can get to the bottom of it. There’s a subplot with Palmer falling under suspicion of the Americans (Thomas Baptiste’s pipe-smoking Barney) that never really goes anywhere, but the sleight of hand of Palmer being abducted to Albania (Hungary in the novel) – before it transpires that he’s been in London all along – is highly effective, probably more so than in the novel, where there’s already been some actualglobetrotting (taking in Pacific neutron bomb tests and Beirut). The refrain “Now listen to me. Listen to me” and Palmer, with the aid of a bloody nail, attempting to resist the technique (“My name is Harry Palmer!”) are rightly iconic, emblematic of the era of British film (such that the latter gave rise to “My name is Michael Caine”), and it’s an impressive torture-and-escape sequence, subjective and tense.

Palmer: I might have been killed, or driven stark raving mad.
Ross: That’s what you’re paid for.

Just as effective is the ongoing absence of anyone for Harry to trust; Jean is informing on him, Ross is manipulating him, Dalby is unreadable, until that is, he’s identified as the traitor. Doleman, who played Count Lippe the same year in Thunderball, is devastatingly dry as Colonel Ross, an entirely worthy sparring partner for Palmer (happily, he would return for both sequels – unhappily, he’s entirely peripheral). Jackson is also great value, doing a lot with a little, such that it’s genuinely sad when he’s revealed in his car, stationary after the traffic lights change, shot in the head.

Caine, who picked out Palmer’s name (Deighton expressly omits to give him one in any of his adventures), unsurprisingly chose to stick with the character through two sequels – like his pal Connery, he knew the importance of clasping gainful employment as closely as possible when it finally arrived – neither of which could equal his first venture, but nor where they anything to be embarrassed by. Which couldn’t be said of the two back-to-back '90s reunions with the character (with no involvement by Deighton); it isn’t really enough that Caine says the experience making them was so unhappy, he decided to retire (a promise he kept for all of five minutes before Jack Nicholson rang him up). Nevertheless, if you can ignore those two – and luckily, they’re pretty below the radar, too inconsequential even to be ranked in the company of the actor’s truly renowned duds – it’s fair to say that this will remain his defining character. Not Alfie, or Milo Tindle, or Peachy Carnehan or Hannah and her Sisters’ Elliot, Harry Brown, or even his Ebenezer Scrooge, can come close. He is Harry Palmer.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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