A number of leading Western scientists have been kidnapped only to reappear a fews days later. Unfortunately, each scientist has been brain washed and is now completely useless. The British send their agent, Harry Palmer, to investigate. Palmer is surprised to be selected for such a mission (considering his past) and believes he has been chosen because he is expendable.
Michael Caine ... Harry Palmer
Nigel Green ... Major Dalby
Guy Doleman ... Colonel Ross
Sue Lloyd ... Jean Courtney
Gordon Jackson ... Carswell
Aubrey Richards ... Dr. Radcliffe
Frank Gatliff ... Bluejay
Thomas Baptiste ... Barney
Oliver MacGreevy ... Housemartin (as Oliver Macgreevy)
Freda Bamford ... Alice
Pauline Winter ... Charlady
Anthony Blackshaw ... Edwards
Barry Raymond ... Gray
David Glover ... Chilcott-Oakes
Stanley Meadows ... Inspector Keightley
Although conceived and produced by Harry Salzman and scored by John Barry, this is a film which deliberately positions itself miles away from the up until this time familiar James Bond espionage ethos. Palmer is a short sighted, class-ridden, form-signing petty criminal, co-opted into the spy service to avoid a year in jail. He lives in a bedsit and wakes up with an alarm call and not a stunning sexual conquest. Unlike Bond too, he operates in an environment which is recognisable and totally believable: big echoing offices ruled by "passed over Majors", where filling out forms is as important as tedious leg work and the idea of a Aston Martin as a company car would be ridiculous. The glamorous stereotypes of 007 have been replaced by the grinding, self effacing reality of the civil service, with its believable day to day grind. In short Ipcress has roots in the contemporary wave of 60's kitchen-sink drama, and not garish Bond fantasies.
This is a film taking a fresh look at what has passed for a spy film before. It's fitting then that a lot of the imagery revolves around sight and seeing. Palmer's glasses are an obvious symbol of imperfect vision (exemplified by a couple of 'blurred vision' special effects in the film). The camera in turn plays avant garde tricks, shooting alternately through the crowded window of a phone booth, through glasses, ornaments and other objects and so on. This is a film in which vision, or *comprehension* - deciphering 'Ipcress' or identifying 'Albania' as really London, for instance - is finally of paramount importance. Palmer has to both see, then understand, the web that surrounds him before he identifies the traitor. At the most basic level this 'knowing' extends to his own self, through the psychological trauma he undergoes.
Class, too, is an important element. Whereas the public school educated Bond would be at home conversing with Palmer's superiors, Palmer is the working class staff man, insubordinate perhaps and cocky, but one who ultimately knows his place. Even the main villain is fairly aristocratic. This makes Palmer's final choice of shot all the more relishable. In the class-ridden snobbery of the secret service it proves to be one of the elite who is suspect and must be killed. Palmer is the better man - and not just morally either: his appreciation of Mozart ('proper' Mozart, too, not the appalling bandstand variety pushed on him by Daulby) and fine cooking, marks him out as a man of taste, in contrast to the surrounding snobbery and elitism.
This theme of class, as well as the locations chosen for 'The Ipcress File' mark it out as a very British spy film - possibly the best one ever in contrast to the Bond cycle, which represented an attempt to create a deliberate trans-Atlantic product. One parallel serves to illustrate this difference: Bond has an American agent friend (Felix Leiter), an occasional minor character in the series. In contrast Palmer shoots an American agent dead by mistake and they tail him in revenge, while another dies in his flat. There is no camaraderie here, and the snug special relationship is nowhere in sight.
Over the years 'The Ipcress File' has lost none of its edge (with the possible exception of the dated 60's psychedelia which confronts Palmer in his torture chair) or punch. Utterly compulsive as a spy drama, it remains one of Caine and Furie's best films, an example of a contemporary fresh approach that still remains a classic.
The best thing about this film is the fascinating period atmosphere. When this film was made, 1965, Britain, and British filmmaking, was exactly on the cusp between the old, class ridden, Imperial culture of films like 'Zulu', and the gritty, modern, realist school that began with films like 'Get Carter'.
In '65 Britain had a Labour government after a long period of Conservative rule, and sweeping changes were about to happen which would utterly change the face of British life. 'Ipcress' bridges the gap between these two eras.
On the one hand we have the upper-middle class army officers lunching at their clubs and strolling along in bowler hats with tightly furled umbrellas, and at the other extreme we have the way-out psychedelia of the interrogation chamber scene, and the grimy world of offices, warehouses, and men jumping out of vans that defined the TV and films of the 70s such as 'The Sweeney'.
In the middle somewhere is Harry Palmer, who rather than being working class, is classless. He has no discernable accent, dresses plainly, likes cooking and classical music and lives in nondescript surroundings. It is only his military rank, that of sergeant, that enables us to make any kind of judgement on his social status.
I think this is part of the enduring appeal of the film. Although the Dalbys of this world are long gone, Palmer would not be out of place in 2003, in fact the Palmers of this world are now the norm in many positions of British authority.
Overall a fascinating period piece but one which has worn well.
Michael Caines first outing as secret agent Harry Palmer is set in 60's London. This is not the Psychedelic London of Austin Powers or the Beatles, neither is it the sophisticated aristocratic London of James Bond. This London is drab and populated by civil servants & bedsits. This London is still coming to terms with the end of World War II and the advent of a modern world.
Working Class Palmer is an unwilling Home Office agent with criminal tendencies who is more interested in a pay rise so that he can indulge his true passion, gourmet cooking, than serving his country. His superiors, Ross (played by Guy Doleman) & Dalby (Played by Nigel Green) represent a microcosm of the British Upper & Lower Middle Classes. Palmer is clearly more cultured in his appreciation of food, music(Mozart & Bach) & women, "I like Birds Best" Palmer admits to Courtney played by Sue Lloyd (of Crossroads fame in UK).
Palmers superiors appear uninterested in the fate of their subordinates and this is one reason why the character of Palmer works so well, we are him, he lives our lives and we want him to win through. This perspective is aided by the stunning photography that uses every conceivable camera angle (even views from a light bulb!) to see the world from the characters perspective.
Look out for the supermarket scene between Ross and Palmer, my vote for the most violent use of a supermarket Trolley in a movie.
As Palmer slowly unravels the mysterious disappearance of top government scientists it becomes clear that there is someone close to the top of the British Secret service acting as a double agent. Who is it, Ross or Dalby? Who is Courtney, Palmers love interest, working for?
In the background is a rather sinister looking CIA, who always appear to be one step ahead of the Brits. (A reference to the decline of Britian as a world power and its reliance on America?) Wether intentional or not, this film has captured a London of the 60's that was going through substantial social change, gone are the class paradigms that suggest that the working class could never be cultured, gone is is the unquestioning loyalty to the upper class. This world was forever changed after the war. This is a film I can watch time and time again, if only to watch the title sequence as Palmer gets up for work as if he is going to just another office job.
This is a stylish movie and one of the greatest British films ever made. If you havn't seen it watch it now!
* Christopher Plummer was originally considered for the lead role, but dropped out to star in The Sound of Music (1965). The role was then offered to Richard Harris who also refused it. Harris later rued his decision, commenting to Sean Connery that he "turned down 'The Ipcress File' but did Caprice (1967) with Doris Day".
* In the Len Deighton novels the name of the lead character is never revealed. So Michael Caine and producer Harry Saltzman tried to think of a boring name for the hero. Caine suggested "Harry" which Saltzman found rather amusing. Caine then remembered a boring classmate named Tommy Palmer. So "Palmer" became the surname.
* Palmer is the first action hero to wear glasses (Caine is myopic in real life). Michael Caine chose to wear glasses because he expected the film to be the first of a series, similar to the Bond movies. He feared being over-identified with the character of Harry Palmer and so he wore the glasses so that he could remove them for other roles.
* Harry Saltzman first suggested Harry H. Corbett for the role of Harry Palmer.
* Michael Caine's Harry Palmer character is depicted as an accomplished cook, but when you see Palmer skillfully break a couple of eggs, the hands in the close-up belong to Len Deighton, author of the book on which the movie is based. Deighton himself was an accomplished cook and also wrote a comic strip about cooking for The Observer. The walls of Palmer's kitchen are full of these strips.
* Producer Harry Saltzman hated director Sidney J. Furie and his oddball style and went so far as to bar him from the editing room. According to Furie, Saltzman also excluded him from the film's party at Cannes and even stole his best picture British Academy Award.
* IPCRESS stands for Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex Under Stress.
* The main melody in the movie's score was played on a cimbalom - a type of Hungarian dulcimer - that provided the forlorn mood that composer John Barry was eager to create.
* Harry's glasses frames were dark brown, contrary to the widely held view that they were black. They were a style called "Teviot 74" manufactured by a company called UK Optical. They were already popular at the time for being a stylish and inexpensive alternative to the standard models that were issued for free by the National Health Service in Britain. They became even more popular after the success of this film. Len Deighton wore the same frames at this time. Those frames have been described by some as the first affordable "designer" frames available in the UK.
* Three pairs of glasses were used by Michael Caine during filming. When all of these were broken during filming, production was held up for a day, until replacements had been found. After that, the prop department was stocked with 20 extra pairs of the Harry Palmer model glasses.
* Two large Victorian terrace houses, at 28 and 30 Grosvenor Gardens, London, were used as studios. The two houses were converted into one huge house containing 40 rooms. These were enlarged or divided according to requirements. Fourteen rooms were used as studios. Other rooms were turned into dressing rooms, wardrobe department, hairdressing, make-up, production offices, a property department and a self-contained restaurant capable of feeding and seating 120 people! This all was kept secret to keep away sight-seers and autograph hunters. Even Michael Caine was driven to work in an inconspicuous car and had to sneak in the back way. As a front, a large sign was painted at the entrance to the film studios. The sign read "The Dalby Employment Agency".
* On the first day of shooting, Sidney J. Furie gathered the cast and said "This is what I think of the script". He then set the script on fire.
* 'Joan Collins (I)' had been considered for the role of Jean Courtney.