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The IPCRESS File – Film review

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).The Ipcress File [DVD]

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.

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Harry’s Game – The Television Series

A few weeks ago I wrote about Gerald Seymour’s classic thriller Harry’s Game.Product Details

Recently we watched the television series of the book, made by Yorkshire Television in 1982 – at a time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were still continuing.

For more about the story itself please see my previous blog.

It’s always interesting to see how a thriller is adapted for television, and Harry’s Game is more faithful to the book than most. Although some scenes were filmed around Belfast, notably in the City Centre and the Falls Road, much of the location filming was carried out near the Yorkshire TV studios in Leeds, on a housing estate scheduled for demolition.

The filming has a gritty reality. For those of us who lived through the times of the Troubles, it was uneasy seeing Saracen armoured cars on the streets again, the reconstructed riots and soldiers dashing from street corner to street corner on foot patrol.

Seymour’s book relies very much on tenseness rather than violence to make its point. The superb direction of the film series, by the admirable Lawrence Gordon Clark, provides tension by the spadeful. Even if you know the book well, the film keeps you on edge.

One reason is that it’s thankfully free of incidental music, though there is the haunting end theme by Clannad. I wish that more directors of film and television would realise the importance of silence. If you’re showing tense scenes you don’t need an intrusive studio orchestra.

Lawrence Gordon Clark made his reputation in film documentaries and this shows in the realism here.

Not having seen the series since it first aired, I was interested to see how the acting stood up over thirty years later. The film is very well cast. The late Ray Lonnen – is quite superb as Harry, giving very much a portrayal of the character in the novel. The IRA gunman Billy Downes is played by Derek Thompson, best known now for his long-running role as Charlie Fairhead in the British hospital series Casualty.

Both characters in the book are two sides of the same coin – family men as well as combatants in an miserable kind of warfare. To give this premise reality, you need two strong leads, and both Ray Lonnen and Derek Thompson are very believable.

The film series has a very strong supporting cast: Maggie Shevlin as Mrs Downes, a mother trapped in a tragic time; Gil Brailey as the woman who comes to know and understand Harry; and Tony Rohr as the IRA commander – a chilling and subtle portrait that lives in your thoughts long after the film has ended. There isn’t a poor performance in the whole series.

I seem to recall that the programme was shown over three consecutive nights on its first airing. It was later repeated as an edited down film, so if you’re buying this make sure you’re getting the original three-parter. The box set we have has a great interview with Ray Lonnen, who came across as a lovely chap.

Thirty-five years later this is British television at its best – a drama that makes you hold your breath.

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Jigsaw – Film Review

Product DetailsOne of my Christmas presents was a DVD of the film Jigsaw. Somehow neither of us had come across this before and we both loved it. Released in 1962, the screenplay was written and directed by Val Guest. The plot is a murder mystery and manages to be a gripping police procedural and a fine example of British film noir. All the more interesting as Jigsaw is adapted from Sleep Long, My Love, a 1959 novel by American mystery writer Hillary Waugh (1920-2008).

Waugh became widely admired for his documentary-style procedurals, a style inspired by reading true-crime studies. Sleep Long, My Love was set in small-town Connecticut and its easy adaptation to an English seaside town illustrates how universal are the themes of deceit and murder.

Jack Warner stars as Detective Inspector Fred Fellows. I’ve always liked  Warner, having grown up with fond memories of Dixon of Dock Green on Saturday evenings – his character there was more or less lifted from a more famous British noir, The Blue Lamp (1950).  In Jigsaw, Warner plays his usual avuncular detective, yet with a harder, no nonsense edge. His Inspector Fellows is determined to find the murderer on his patch, assisted by his likeable sergeant, well-played by Ronald Lewis.

The plot is full of credible detective work, twists and turns, hence the title. There’s a classic beginning of a woman in a drably furnished bedroom – ashtray by the bed – soon to be murdered by her unseen lover. In some ways this reminded me of a Francis Durbridge drama – although not quite so convoluted – in part because Moira Redmond was cast as the murdered woman. She always seemed to have a strong screen presence and memorably played the title role in the 1972 TV drama re-make of Durbridge’s Melissa.

Jigsaw is largely filmed in and around Brighton and benefits from that atmospheric setting, chosen by generations of novelists and film-makers. A natural choice as the plot has similarities to the infamous Brighton trunk murders of the early thirties. The setting was one reason that attracted me as I’ve known the town well for many years and never walk those streets without thinking of its literary dark side.

I love black and white films and murder/mystery plots are enhanced by a world of monotones, contrasting sunlight and shadows. Brighton here is shown at an interesting transitional time. This is not the famous town (now city) of the Prince Regent’s Royal Pavilion roof-line or the lively Palace Pier. We glimpse the sea-front with the lovely old West Pier still intact but this is back-street Brighton of seedy, peeling stucco, corner shops and rooms to let. The surrounding bare hills are just beginning to be marked by footings for new houses.

The period motor-cars are an added pleasure along with some atmospheric shots of Brighton and Lewes railway stations in their steam hey-day. The cinematography is very effective. The murderer is seen in glimpses without the face. We don’t see the body but we watch the reaction shots of the detectives’ faces as they throw open a trunk lid. The camera dwells lovingly on wet streets by night, cigarette smoke, the Cutty Sark on a bright morning.

As so often in these films, another pleasure is seeing a turn-out of familiar character actors, here including Ray Barrett, John Barron, Michael Goodliffe, John Le Mesurier and Brian Oulton. American actress Yolande Donlan – Mrs Val Guest – does an immaculate British accent.

Hillary Waugh wrote eleven crime novels featuring Police Chief Fred Fellows. They’re going on my reading pile when I can track them down.

Warning – If you plan to buy the film, be aware that the blurb on the reverse of the DVD gives away the identity of the murderer! This is an appallingly careless thing to do and we’re indebted to a kind Amazon reviewer who pointed this out.

It was hard not to read the back before viewing but I’m so glad I managed. A highly recommended classic.

 

 

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Allingham and Christie – Two Christmas Stories

It’s fun to read Christmassy crime in December and this seems the only time of year I get around to re-reading short stories. This year I’ve gone back to Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Man with the Sack and Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Both have the classic pre-war set-up where the detective is invited to stay at a country house – although the Christie was published in 1960.

The  Case of the Man with the Sack was first published in 1937 in the December issue of The Strand magazine. It was included a year later in Mr Campion: Criminologist. It’s in print in the Arcturus anthology My Friend Mr Campion and other mysteries.

Albert Campion is implored to spend Christmas with his friends the Turret family at their East Anglian home, Pharaoh’s Court. Rising gaunt and bleak amid three hundred acres of ploughed clay and barren salting, all as flat as the estuary beyond. Good job it wasn’t Poirot, I can imagine how he’d shudder.

Lady Turret is ‘goat-touting’ over Christmas, that is entertaining a family of social climbers, masquerading as friends, in exchange for a fat fee. Allingham has lots of fun with the ghastly Welkins family. As expected in such tales, Mrs Welkins, a large middle-aged woman with drooping cheeks and stupid eyes, has brought with her an impressive diamond necklace.

I like this story a lot. It has festive atmosphere, humour, entertaining characters and an ingenious, satisfying plot.

The Turret family’s money-troubles are the ghost of Christmases to come for country house owners. By 1960 in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, society is changing.

In this story, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend a traditional English Christmas at  Kings Lacey, a manor house, which is part fourteenth century. He is on the trail of a famous ruby, stolen from an indiscreet young native prince. Although Poirot displays his customary soft spot for young people and their follies, it is only the guarantee of oil-fired central heating that coaxes him away from London in winter.

The title gives much away to the armchair sleuth and I do wonder if Christie was having fun with a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.

I won’t say much about either plot as these are short stories but their similarities are interesting to compare. Both authors have the McGuffin of a precious jewel/piece of jewellery, the rambling country home decked with seasonal trimmings, snow on the way, outsiders at the feast (as well as the detective) and young couples. In both tales the lady of the house is more aware of the situation and ‘managing’ her husband.

The notable difference between them is the time period. In Margery Allingham’s 1930s, Lady Turret may have temporary money-troubles from her heavy losses at bridge but the family still entertain their tenants’ children at their annual Christmas party.

By 1960 at Kings Lacey, society is changing. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is suffused with nostalgia – and this reads as though it comes from the author rather than the characters. Agatha Christie wrote an appealing foreward to this volume of short stories, where she recalled the superb Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall, near Stockport. Abney Hall was the family home of her brother-in-law and many years later, she wrote The Adventure while staying there.

Mrs Lacey says to Poirot. My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.

 And of herself: I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages.

The granddaughter staying at Kings Lacey has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She lives in Chelsea and goes about without washing or combing her hair.

The Adventure of the  Christmas Pudding is an enjoyable read with interesting social detail but I felt dissatisfied with meeting Poirot so briefly. I miss the length of a novel. Of the two, I prefer The Case of the Man with the Sack. Trying to work out why, I think because I admired the puzzle and liked the humour. It was easier to enjoy the short story for what it was, without missing a murder so much – much as I  love Mr. Campion novels.

That’s the problem for me, a crime story without a murder just doesn’t satisfy in the same way. Understandably there’s a school of thought that Christmas tales should be lighter in tone and all end well but I like some darkness among the cheer. For me – in the pages of fiction only – there’s nothing like mulled wine, mince pies and murder…

 

 

 

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Rogue Male with Peter O’Toole

Several times on this blog I’ve mentioned my enthusiasmRogue Male (DVD-R) (1976) (All Regions) (NTSC) (US Import) for Geoffrey Household’s classic chase thriller Rogue Male.  I’ve already reviewed the Walter Pigeon film Man Hunt, Hollywood’s take on the novel, and the book itself. (see blogs passim).

Recently, I watched the BBC version from 1976, starring Peter O’Toole. I hadn’t seen this since it was first broadcast. My memory told me it was very good, and this film certainly lives up to my original good opinion. It comes the closest to the book.

Now, if you’ve never read Rogue Male, do seek it out. I won’t give any spoilers in this review. Its unnamed hero – called Robert Thorndyke in the film – attempts to shoot Adolf Hitler in the last days of peace in the 1930s.

In the aftermath of the attempt, the hunter becomes the hunted, There are some quite splendid chase sequences in the film – across Germany, through the London Underground railway, and finally into the downlands and hollow-ways of Dorset. Although some scenes are lost, inevitably for film time, the rest are portrayed with great fidelity.

Peter O’Toole was wont to remark that it was his favourite role in his long and distinguished acting career. It’s easy to see why.

There are some quite excellent supporting performances by the cream of British acting talent: Cyd Hayman makes a flashback appearance as Thorndyke’s lover. Michael Byrne is terrific and menacing as a Gestapo interrogator, John Standing is both urbane and threatening as Major Quive-Smith – sent by the Third Reich to track down Thorndyke, Alastair Sim is Thorndyke’s Cabinet Minister uncle (the only character who isn’t in the book). There’s an interesting appearance by the playwright Harold Pinter as Thorndyke’s solicitor Paul Abrahams.

But this really is Peter O’Toole’s film. I think it is the finest performance of his career. He really gets what it it to be hunted. He’s broken in so many ways by the events that sent him to Germany. He is physically and mentally scarred by what happens afterwards.

Household’s hero in the book tries to convince himself that getting Hitler in his gunsight was a sporting stalk, that he never intended to shoot. We see here just how that self-delusion came about.

Rogue Male is a particularly difficult book to film. The novel itself is told in the first person and the hero is a broken narrator. We see all of the action through his own thoughts. The hunter indeed becomes the hunted. Clive Donner’s direction of the film brings this out in a number of tense scenes, which evoke a real sense of fear. The location photography is beautiful and atmospheric, and adds to the sense of danger in some finely designed set-pieces.

A superb film in so many ways. There is said to be a new version being produced starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It will be interesting to see how he handles the character of the hunted man. I hope it stays similarly faithful to the book.

 

 

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High Sierra

High Sierra (1941) was the film that finally cemented Humphrey Bogart’s reputation as a Hollywood lead actor, though he had to fight the movie establishment to even get the part, including persuading George Raft not to do it.

Directed by Raoul Walsh and based on the novel by W R Burnett, and with a fairly faithful screenplay of the book by Burnett and John Huston, High Sierra is a heist movie with elements of film noir. Bogart plays gangster Roy “Mad Dog” Earle, got out of jail by a rather amiable gang leader called Big Mac (Donald MacBride) who wants Earle to lead a robbery at a fashionable resort hotel.

On his journey across country we are shown the compassionate side of Earle when he meets a farming family who have lost their farm and been obliged to travel to California to stay with relatives. The daughter of the family, Velma (Joan Leslie) has a club foot and Earle pays for her to have corrective surgery. Earle’s infatuation for Velma is rebuffed, sending him on a spiralling descent to destruction.

At a mountain resort hideout Earle meets the other members of the gang, all of them, in their differing ways, liabilities. Louis Mendoza (Cornel Wilde) who works on the reception at the hotel, and Red (Arthur Kennedy), Babe (Alan Curtis), and Marie (Ida Lupino) who becomes Earle’s moll.

There’s a scene-stealing dog as well, Pard, played by Bogart’s own pet Zero. Surely one of the most talented pooches ever filmed. The dog attaches itself to Earle, though he has a reputation for only getting close to men who are doomed.

After the robbery goes wrong, Earle goes on the run, leading to a dramatic shoot-out – terrifically staged on location – on the slopes of Mount Whitney.

High Sierra scores not only because of the terrific acting performances, particularly Bogart and Lupino, but also with the sensational real location filming and a very literate script. There are moments of awkwardness for the modern audience. The black houseboy Algernon (played by the very talented Willie Best) is little more than a racist caricature, but then this was the Hollywood of 76 years ago.

Bogart is a triumph, tough one moment, genuinely motivated by real compassion the next. His portrayal of Roy Earle, a man who is really seeking a kind of freedom and an ordinary life, deservedly made him one of the most in-demand stars in Hollywood, leading directly to his casting as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon and Rick in Casablanca.

Interestingly, High Sierra was remade (again by Raoul Walsh) as a western, Colorado Territory, starring Joel McCrea, and then again as a heist movie with Jack Palance as Roy Earle, called I Died a Thousand Times. Both are entertaining, though very inferior to the original. High Sierra partly succeeds because it came along at the time it did. The postwar generation of movie-goers perhaps wanted something a little smoother and the great pre-war days of the gangster movie were at an end.

High Sierra is a real classic of the heist movie genre. Well worth seeking out and usually available with extra features in Humphrey Bogart box sets.

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Where the Sidewalk Ends

 As regular readers of Gaslight Crime will know I have a passion for film noir. And there are few better examples of the genre than Otto Preminger’s classic 1950 picture “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, starring Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney.

Set in New York, cop Mark Dixon has been reprimanded for being rough with suspects. Dixon is a man who is handy with his fists, never quite managing to throw off a dubious and criminal family background. His father was a thief.

During the course of the movie, Dixon – acting in self-defence – accidentally kills a suspect. The film deals in great detail with how Dixon – desperate to save his career – disposes of the body and tries to throw the blame for the death elsewhere.

To complicate matters Dixon falls for the dead man’s wife (Tierney), and then has to try to protect her when his boss (a terrific early performance by Karl Malden) tries to put her father in the frame for the killing.

In the meantime, Dixon’s own life is threatened by the gangster Scalise (Gary Merrill – surely one of the best, yet most underrated actors in Hollywood).

Dixon’s attempts to defeat Scalise, in a very personal feud, leads to the exciting climax.

The photography in this film (black and white, please always resist colourisation!) is truly wonderful, giving a terrific impression of – usually rainy – New York streets. Preminger’s direction is spot on, a great director working from Ben Hecht’s literate and moving script.

So is Dixon role in a man’s death found out? Well, see it for yourself and find out if the film is new to you. And if you haven’t seen it for a while please do revisit the noir masterpiece.

You can get it on DVD either on its own or in a box set with other great examples of film noir.

 

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