The Ipcress File

It’s a good measure of the impact of James Bond movies on the 1960s that, in addition to spawning countless imitations, they also spawned a healthy number of reactions, that is, movies that stepped forward to say “James Bond isn’t how international espionage is, this is how international espionage is.”  The angriest of these reactions was probably The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, with a disgusted Richard Burton grousing about espionage being filled with degenerate, failed, perverse little men, a movie so intent on disproving the Bond romance that it becomes a romance of a different kind, a romance of failure and self-absorbtion.

And then there is The Ipcress File, which presents a whole nother vision, an anti-Bond fascinating in its own right. 

James Bond has gadgets, fantastic weapons, fast cars, beautiful women and exotic locations, while Ipcress‘s Harry Palmer has no gadgets, wears National Health horn-rims, carries a snubnose .38, owns no car, flirts with plain-Jane secretaries and never leaves dreary London.  He shops in a supermarket, quarrels over brands of canned mushrooms and lives in a tiny, depressing flat.

There is a comically pedestrian, almost Pythonesque nature to Harry’s adventures in espionage.  He is spy as civil servant, his office and its doings being barely above that of a DMV post.  He bickers with his coworkers about paperwork, he’s surrounded by muttering drones, dull-minded superiors and “put the kettle on” pepperpots.  When Harry needs to find a missing scientist, there are no secret meetings, code words or  labyrinthine precautions; he just walks up to his contact in a library and asks him where the guy is.  When it turns out the guy has a tough bodyguard, there are no razor-hats or metal teeth, just a simple punch-up on the library steps.

Michael Caine’s talents continue to astonish.  He manages to make Harry a living, breathing entity; one senses the bitterness of a wasted life underneath Harry’s unflappable facade.  There is an everyday, almost depressive feel to Harry, a mopey, buttoned-down dullard who wouldn’t know a casino, laser cannon or volcano stronghold if he woke up in one.  The investigation Harry’s on rarely rises above the level of a routine police story, with spies wandering around in the open and trading exchanges like:

SUPERIOR: Well.  It looks like we’re too late.
HARRY: If we had been on time, I’d be a hero.
SUPERIOR: But we weren’t.
(everyone prepares to leave)
HARRY: Hey.  This stove is warm.
HARRY: And look, there’s something inside. (examines the thing) That’s recording tape.
SUPERIOR: Let me see it.
(examines it — it is clearly labelled “IPCRESS”)
HARRY: Do you think it means something?
SUPERIOR: It might. (pause) It just might.

In Act III, Harry is framed for murder, kidnapped by the bad guys and brainwashed, which raises his pulse a little bit but does not seem to ruffle the feathers of anyone he works with.  It’s British Reserve carried to its logical conclusion; even when in life-or-death situations, Harry’s cohorts cannot bring themselves to perform desperate acts; they can only sigh and get on with it.

It is perhaps indicative of Harry’s stance that the final horror, the bad guy’s sinister world-threatening brainwashing technique, involves exposing him to modern art and electronic music.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the utterly original, stylized direction of Sidney J. Furie, which recalls nothing and exists within its own cool, implacable logic.  Furie, bafflingly, went from what feels like a highly personal directing style to projects as diverse and anonymous as Superman IV: The Quest For Peace, Iron Eagle and Ladybugs, before going on to Dolph Lundgren action movies and episodes of VIP. hit counter html code


11 Responses to “The Ipcress File”
  1. ndgmtlcd says:

    That movie actually has a pretty good rythm going for it, from beginning to end. Great pacing. You can’t say that of all spy/secret agent films, then or today.

  2. craigjclark says:

    I’m glad you brought up The Spy Who Came in from the Cold because that saves me the trouble of doing so. If you can track it down, The Quiller Memorandum is also worth a look.

    Of course, my absolute favorite film about Cold War-era espionage has to be The President’s Analyst.

    • Todd says:

      I loved The President’s Analyst when I was a kid — even as a child I knew it was playing off of something else, somewhere between In Like Flint and Get Smart.

      • craigjclark says:

        The President’s Analyst was always a favorite around my house because my father actually worked for The Phone Company. I was so thrilled when it finally came out on DVD — and with the original soundtrack intact. I think it holds up wonderfully.

        I remember watching Our Man Flint on AMC (back when it still was and showed American Movie Classics) and loving it, but could barely sustain any interest in In Like Flint.

  3. mr_noy says:

    The only Harry Palmer film I’ve seen was the third one, Billion Dollar Brain, directed by Ken Russell. It was better than I thought it would be and is, in many ways, eerily prescient. A right-wing, God-fearing Texas oil magnate plans to wipe out Communism (read Terrorism) by invading a foreign country. According to his intelligence, the people will greet his soldiers as liberators and join them in bringing peace and democracy to the region. But how reliable is his intelligence? Harry gets caught in the middle. Good stuff.

  4. teamwak says:

    Another great read, thanks.

    I always loved the Harry Palmer movies. The Quiller Memorandum was great, but I always loved the Billion Dollar Brain. I always remembered that the viruses are being transported in live eggs in a sealed case. Harry X-rays the package at the airport, then asks his contact – How did he like his eggs? The contact goes funny thinking Harry has opened the package. Great movies.

    In some ways Harry was quite a modern man. If I remember he cooks his girlfriend a gormet meal, an act almost unheard of by a 1960’s male.

    • craigjclark says:

      Never seen Billion Dollar Brain. As the third film in a series, I haven’t wanted to see it until I catch the one before it — and I haven’t tracked down Funeral in Berlin yet.

      • teamwak says:

        Its well worth a watch. It is a classic of its time as well, if I remember. Lots of period music and camera angles.

        Still a good, fun thriller.

    • Todd says:

      If I remember he cooks his girlfriend a gormet meal

      HARRY: I am going to cook you the best meal of your life.
      CUT TO: After dinner
      WOMAN: That was the best meal of my life.

      Harry Palmer does not need a flashy car or a Walther PPK.