One of my favourite films, The IPCRESS File is based on the famous first novel by Len Deighton. It’s been decades since I read it – and its sequels – though I should make time for a re-read, as I watch the film every couple of years. (I have re-read Deighton’s later Bernard Samson espionage novels and his military history. I’m a huge fan of them all).
Released in 1965, The IPCRESS File is a near perfect, Cold War era, spy film, directed by Sidney J. Furie. Cinematography, cast, locations, pace, plot, themes and score, it doesn’t put a foot wrong.
The main character, Harry Palmer, is played by Michael Caine in his first leading rôle. Very much up-and-coming, this part is credited with making him a star. Generally, I’ve mixed feelings about Caine’s acting. He seems to be in many films I love and has a strong screen presence. Though I find it hard to forget it’s him, whatever the part. Fortunately, he’s well-cast here as a laconic, working-class Londoner.
Apparently the part was first offered to Christopher Plummer – who’d already played a spy in Triple Cross, (based on the exploits of real-life agent, Eddie Chapman). Plummer turned it down in order to make The Sound of Music. The part was then offered to Richard Harris, who later regretted not taking it.
Harry Palmer is an army sergeant working for Military Intelligence, cocky, insolent, very much his own man. His superior, Colonel Ross, has him transferred to a secret counter-intelligence unit run by a Major Dalby. Ross all but blackmails Palmer, on account of fiddles he was working in Berlin. Palmer’s main concern is whether he’ll get a pay rise.
Dalby’s current operation concerns an alarming ‘brain drain’, a popular term in the Sixties. British scientists are going missing. The film’s opening sequence illustrating this is terrific; set in Marylebone Station, nostalgic with steam and porters and deeply sinister. A reluctant Palmer soon finds out he’s replacing an agent who was murdered.
The supporting cast is superb. Ross is played by Guy Doleman, cool, upper-class, finding Palmer and Dalby equally distasteful. Nigel Green plays Dalby, shifty-looking and shrewd. Two fine character actors, they give wonderful performances, verbally fencing in every scene. Green had memorably worked with Michael Caine on Zulu, which gave Caine’s career a considerable leg-up, a year earlier.
The leading lady is the lovely, sultry Sue Lloyd, who would star in the 1966 television series The Baron. The ever-likable Gordon Jackson plays a fellow agent, long before he ran his own department in The Professionals and there are compelling cameos from Thomas Baptiste and Frank Gatliff.
The IPCRESS File was publicised as a more realistic alternative to the Secret Service of James Bond and Harry Palmer – unnamed in the novel – as Bond’s antithesis. This was the first time, (as far as I know), that an action hero was seen in glasses. The heavy black frames worn by Michael Caine had quite a following after the film aired. More tea-urn than martinis, there’s absolutely no glamour and all the better for it.
Rather than exotic locations, this film celebrates a realistic London of crowded pavements, grey skies and dull, anonymous buildings in pitted Portland stone. There’s no sense of the Swinging Sixties, in feeling it harks back to the beginning of the decade.
Iconic backdrops are rationed, though Major Dalby’s office windows overlook Trafalgar Square, all red buses and pigeons. There’s one tense set-piece against the rounded facade of the Royal Albert Hall and a beautifully directed scene in the echoing London Science Library.
Dalby’s operation is in one such seedy building, fronted by Alice who runs a fake employment agency. A lovely performance by Freda Bamford, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, down-at-heel, calling everyone dear, she’s the epitome of an office tea-lady. Except she’s an agent, taking her place at Dalby’s briefing in a smoke-wreathed projection room.
Again in contrast to James Bond, the spying business is shown to be as dreary as any other with tedious, form-filling bureaucracy. The difference being that these lowly Civil Servants are pawns in a deadly game. They’re cannon-fodder.
The cinematography by Otto Heller is stunning with wonderful use of shadows and odd angles. Filming from the light fitting for instance, gives a voyeuristic feel as though the viewer too is watching an operation in the dark, cramped projection room.
One of the things I love about The IPCRESS File is its sense of changing times. It catches Britain on the cusp, when looking back to the War was giving way to a new modern age. In a brief space after the Profumo affair and before the Summer of Love, the bomb sites are still being cleared and brutal concrete and glass buildings are going up.
Colonel Ross, a traditional ‘dinosaur’, meets Palmer in a Safeway supermarket, a new phenomenon to Britain. He’s uncomfortable pushing a trolley, disdainful and bemused by the shoppers. Palmer, an accomplished cook, is perfectly at home. I remember my Grandma remarking on the opening of a supermarket in our nearest town and saying what a con self-service was, making the customer do the work! A widely-held view at the time.
Len Deighton wrote a very enjoyable book on French cookery in the Sixties. My family had a copy. In a scene in Palmer’s flat, when he expertly breaks eggs one-handed, for an omlette, the hands used in close-up belong to Deighton. The author wrote a cookery column in The Observer at that time, in comic-strip, a recipe form which he invented. Some are framed on the wall in Palmer’s kitchen-area.
Another of the film’s strengths is its take on our awful British class system. Colonel Ross is upper-middle, officer class and clearly regards Harry Palmer as a working class oik. Major Dalby, who also looks down on Palmer, is more lower-middle class. He’s looked down upon by Ross (this is getting complicated) and you feel Dalby probably went to a second-rate public school. Ross and Dalby are both at home in The Establishment, a world of higher Civil Servants and gentlemens’ clubs.
What’s interesting is that Harry Palmer seems to represent a new class-less Britain. He doesn’t give a hoot for his so-called ‘betters.’ And he may be hard-up and have a Cockney accent but we’re shown that he’s the one who truly appreciates the finer things in life, such as good food and classical music. Palmer is, what Geoffrey Household – another superb British spy novelist – called Class X, someone outside the system.
The IPCRESS File builds to a very satisfying climax, underlined by John Barry’s memorably edgy score. The effectively tense, jangly notes came from using a cimbalom, a type of dulcimer.
I love the final scene. Brief and understated, it conveys so much about the British stiff-upper-lip we used to have. The IPCRESS File is a marvellous Cold War spy film. A taut, exciting adventure which also has acute social commentary. Nostalgia at its best and an icon of British film history.