Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

It's their place, Mac. They have a right to make of it what they can. Besides, you can't eat scenery!

Local Hero (1983)
(SPOILERS) With the space of thirty-five years, Bill Forsyth’s gentle eco-parable feels more seductive than ever. Whimsical is a word often applied to Local Hero, but one shouldn’t mistake that description for its being soft in the head, excessively sentimental or nostalgic. Tonally, in terms of painting a Scottish idyll where the locals are no slouches in the face of more cultured foreigners, the film hearkens to both Powell and Pressburger (I Know Where I’m Going!) and Ealing (Whisky Galore!), but it is very much its own beast.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993)
(SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Of course, one m…

You're a dead tissue that won't decompose.

Collateral Beauty (2016)
(SPOILERS) Will Smith’s most recent attempt to take a wrecking ball to his superstardom, Collateral Beauty is one of those high concept emotional journeys that only look like a bad idea all along when they flop (see Regarding Henry). Except that, with a plot as gnarly as this, it’s difficult to see quite how it would ever not have rubbed audiences up the wrong way. A different director might have helped, someone less thuddingly literal than David Frankel. When this kind of misguided picture gets the resounding drubbing it has, I tend to seek out positives. Sometimes, that can be quite easy – A Winter’s Tale, for example, for all its writ-large flaws – but it’s a fool’s errand with Collateral Beauty.

I'm reliable, I'm a very good listener, and I'm extremely funny.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)
(SPOILERS) When I wrote my 23 to see in 2019, I speculated that James Cameron might be purposefully giving his hand-me-downs to lesser talents because he hubristically didn’t want anyone making a movie that was within a spit of the proficiency we’ve come to expect from him. Certainly, Robert Rodriguez and Tim Miller are leagues beneath Kathryn Bigelow, Jimbo’s former spouse and director of his Strange Days screenplay. Miller’s no slouch when it comes to action – which is what these movies are all about, let’s face it – but neither is he a craftsman, so all those reviews attesting that Terminator: Dark Fate is the best in the franchise since Terminator 2: Judgment Day may be right, but there’s a considerable gulf between the first sequel (which I’m not that big a fan of) and this retcon sequel to that sequel.