Saturday, June 7, 2014

The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File was the first and best of the movie adaptations of Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer spy novels (although the character is never actually named in the books). It also gave Michael Caine his first starring role.

The idea was to make a kind of anti-Bond spy movie, something which caused problems with producer Harry Saltzman who was of course the producer of the Bond films. Len Deighton, along with John le Carré, had been responsible for launching spy fiction in a new, more cynical, direction and the movie captures the Deighton feel rather well.

Harry Palmer, with his glasses and Cockney accent, was a very different sort of movie spy, a spy of a type that would soon become as much of a cliché as Bond but in 1965 the idea was still fresh and exciting. 

The movie starts as so many spy stories start, with the inexplicable disappearance of a top scientist. Since he is the seventeenth top scientist either to disappear or to mysteriously become unproductive, the British intelligence services are rather worried. Palmer’s boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), has just transferred him to the very secret section run by Major Dalby (Nigel Green) and Palmer finds himself working with several other agents on the case. Harry is the one who makes the breakthrough, managing to make contact with the smooth but sinister Grantby, the man believed to be behind the vanishing scientists mystery. Harry doesn’t find the scientist but he does find a strip of magnetic recording tape filled with strange electronic noises and bearing the enigmatic label Ipcress.

Harry lands himself in trouble when he accidently kills a CIA agent, and in even more trouble when he is captured by Grantby. Being captured proves to be very unpleasant but it does provide him with the clue as to who exactly is double-crossing whom.

Harry is not the easiest of agents to control, having a reputation for being not merely insolent but having definite criminal tendencies. Those criminal tendencies almost landed him in a military prison, a fate he escaped due to the intervention of Colonel Ross who felt that such deviousness would be very useful in a spy. This is another element that would later become a standard spy movie cliché but Michael Caine makes the character much more than a stereotypical maverick insubordinate spy hero. Caine’s performance is right on target. He has the ability to make even the most hackneyed dialogue seem delightfully fresh and original. 

He is well supported by a plethora of superb character actors, with Guy Doleman and Nigel Green being particularly outstanding. Sue Lloyd is the obligatory glamorous female spy, albeit a more interesting example of the species than most.

Harry Saltzman was a great producer but with an intense suspicion of fancy film-making stylistics, which was slightly unfortunate given that director Sidney J. Furie was much addicted to exactly those kinds of fancy film-making stylistics. At one point editor Peter Hunt (who went on to direct the best of the Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service) had to intervene to stop Saltzman from firing his director. Furie really does indulge himself. He had a particular fondness for Dutch angles and for shooting scenes through objects - through grilles, through doorways, through windows, through car windscreens, even through a parking meter. When he wasn’t shooting through something he was shooting reflections in eye-glasses. This could easily have come across as mere gimmickry but it doesn’t. It works and it adds to the atmosphere on unease and suspicion and betrayal. Cinematographer Otto Heller does wonders, often filming in very difficult situation with less than ideal lighting conditions.

Director Furie was so unhappy with the script that the movie had to be shot in sequence since the script was being rewritten as it was filmed. 

Despite these problems it all comes together perfectly. Furie’s idiosyncratic style results in a movie that feels radically different from any previous spy movie. His style is complemented by John Barry’s equally unconventional score.

The Ipcress File is dark and cynical but wisely avoids being too cynical (a flaw that is all too apparent in many later spy films). Harry Palmer isn’t a conventional spy hero but he is a hero. There are plenty of double-crosses and the good guys do resort to some nasty tricks, but they are still the good guys. It’s a difficult balancing act and here it is performed immaculately.

This is a movie that can only be appreciated in its correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Even more than most movies The Ipcress File is simply not going to work when pan-and-scanned. Happily the Region 4 DVD presents the film in a good 16x9 enhanced transfer. In the past I’d only seen pan-and-scanned versions and seeing it presented properly is a revelation. There’s also an excellent commentary track featuring director Sidney J. Furie and editor Peter Hunt.

The Ipcress File is certainly quirky and takes stylistic risks but the end result is one of the best spy movies ever made. Very highly recommended.

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