The Ipcress File: the downbeat, alternative and gourmet 007 turns 50

If the online excitement in response to teaser images from Spectre, the 24th James Bond film, is anything to go by, we’ve lost none of our fascination with the Bond franchise. Spectre promises to have a stripped back, almost retro feel, as evidenced by images of Daniel Craig ditching his tailor made suit in favour of a black turtleneck and leather shoulder holster, harking back to previous Bond incarnations in From Russia With Love (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1967).

If you don’t want to wait until Spectre’s scheduled release at the end of this year for a dose of retro spy thrills, look no further than The Ipcress File, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this week.

Based on the 1962 debut novel of the same name by Len Deighton, The Ipcress File hit UK cinemas on March 18, 1965. It was nominated for a Palme d’Or at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival and won the BAFTA for best British film the same year. The British Film Institute lists it number 59 on the 100 best British film of the 20th Century.

The Ipcress File was a major success for Canadian born director, Sidney J. Furie (another being Lady Sings the Blues starring Diana Ross in 1972). Harry Saltzman, who helped oversee the Bond franchise, produced it.

Although not nearly as well known as Bond, The Ipcress File influenced a string of subsequent British espionage films. Its mood and sense of pace were also reportedly used as a model for the US TV series, Mission Impossible, which went to air the following year. The film launched the big screen career of hitherto unknown actor Michael Caine.

It opens with the kidnapping of a British physicist, Radcliffe, and the murder of his security escort. British army sergeant Harry Palmer, working a dead end surveillance detail for the Ministry of Defence, is summoned by his boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and told he is to be transferred to a section headed by the officious Major Dalby (Nigel Green), investigating the disappearance. Radcliffe is the latest of 16 British scientists to go missing. Although the others have reappeared several days later, their scientific knowledge has been wiped and they can no longer function in their professions, undermining the UK’s global competitiveness.

The main suspects are an Albanian born British citizen, codenamed Blue Jay and his enforcer, code named Housemartin. Housemartin is arrested by police, but murdered in his cell before Palmer can get to him. Another lead results in Dalby’s team raiding a factory, but it is deserted and the only evidence found is a piece of recording tape with the letters ‘Ipcress’ on it. The tape makes a strange sound when played back, but is otherwise of no use.

Palmer and Dalby eventually negotiate with Blue Jay for Radcliffe to be handed over in return for a large sum of money. The exchange, in an underground car park, goes smoothly until Palmer shoots and kills a man lurking in the shadows, who happens to be an American agent. And although Radcliffe appears to be in good physical health, his mind has been wiped clear of all scientific knowledge.

Palmer is told to make himself scarce for a few days while his superiors attempt to placate the Americans, but he is abducted as he tries to leave London. He wakes up in what appears to be a prison in Albania.

Mind control was a controversial issue in the ’60s, with frequent claims both sides in the Cold War used it. Apart from this aspect, The Ipcress File has few of the flourishes of the Bond films. Writing in The Guardian in 2006, film critic Peter Bradshaw called Palmer ‘a downbeat alternative to 007’. Based on the anonymous character in Deighton’s novel, he is a sullen, working class Cockney, with a dodgy past, interested more in money than serving Queen and country. “Insubordinate, insolent, a trickster, perhaps with criminal tendencies,” says Dalby, reading from Palmer’s file.

The name ‘Harry Palmer’ was selected precisely because it was so dull. The character’s horn-rimmed glasses — chosen by Caine who feared being typecast and wanted to be able to take them off and disassociate himself from the role — emphasis his ordinariness, established in the film’s opening scenes, Palmer getting ready for work.

Palmer’s only unusual trait is he fancies himself a gourmet. In one of the film’s better-known scenes, Palmer makes a meal for Jean (Sue Loyd), a jaded operative in Dalby’s section, sent by her boss to keep tabs on his newest employee. The hands shown making the omelette are those of Deighton, as Caine couldn’t cook. In addition to writing thrillers, Deighton also did illustrated cooking pieces for The Observer newspaper, one of which can be seen pinned to the wall of Palmer’s kitchen.

The downbeat look and feel of The Ipcress File belie its sophisticated production values. The innovative cinematography by Vashi Nedomansky, including his use of light and shadow, emphasises the sense of paranoia and covert surveillance. John Barry’s score is considered by some critics to be his best work. Complex electronic sound effects were specially designed to make the attempted brain washing sequence towards the end feel especially jarring.

Popular culture’s fascination with spies began with the publication of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale in 1953. Serious novelists, like Deighton and John Le Carre, as well as countless lowbrow and pulp imitators followed. Television and cinema got in on the act and by the mid-’60s, popular culture was awash in secret agents and demented villains planning global domination.

These films and books have been instrumental in shaping the public’s understanding of espionage and explain how they often overlapped with the activities of real spy agencies. CIA chief Allen Dulles was a huge Fleming fan, encouraged the author to portray his agency positively, and even tried to copy some of the gadgets used in the films, such as Rosa Klebb’s poison-tipped dagger shoe in From Russia With Love. One of The Ipcress File’s scriptwriters was summoned to a meeting by the secretary of Britain’s highly secretive Defence, Press and Broadcasting Committee, the body that monitors the release of information relating to secret intelligence and military operations. There is no record of what was discussed.

Spies and their opponents personified the perceived threats of the era in which they are active. Hence the gradual evolution of villains from Russians spies, shadowy Eastern Europeans and Red Chinese agents to arms dealers, computer hackers and megalomaniac media proprietors.

Bond in particular harks back to a time when foreign travel and airports were seen as glamorous. His gadgets, promiscuous sex and excessive alcohol consumption reflect the rise of America’s consumer high tech economy and increasingly permissive values.

While The Ipcress File contains hints of the coming economic and cultural change, London is drab, wet and only just emerging from the austerity of the ’50s.

Unlike Bond, the film portrays the dull aspects of espionage. Palmer spends almost as much energy dealing with the bureaucracy and paperwork involved in his job as he does actually spying.

Typical of British spy films (such as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which also appeared in 1965 and the 1969 adaption of Le Carre’s The looking Glass War), The Ipcress File portrays spying as a dirty game and those involved in it have as much to fear from their own side as the enemy. Not only does Palmer mistakenly kill a friendly agent, he gets very little help from his superiors, Dalby and Ross, who spend as much time keeping tabs on each other as the supposed enemy. There’s also a strong element of class politics. Ross and Dalby are obviously upper class and both make it clear Palmer has been given his new job because it is exceedingly dangerous and his working class status makes him expendable.

Caine played Palmer in two more Deighton novels, Funeral in Berlin (1966), and The Billion Dollar Brain (1967). He also reprised the role in two, forgettable, made for television films in the ’90s, neither based on Deighton books.

Whether or not director Sam Mendes follows through on hints that Spectre will return to the character’s gritty, early days, he’s unlikely to deliver a film like The Ipcress File.

5 responses to “The Ipcress File: the downbeat, alternative and gourmet 007 turns 50

  1. Interesting that the film doesn’t follow the book at all closely. Don’t know why not – the book is great – one of my favourites. I recommend all the “Harry Palmer” Deighton books (not that the name appears in any of them). Tense, funny and highly evocative of London in the 60’s for those of us who can remember it. Caine was perfect casting. Hope Mr Deighton is still going strong.

  2. The two later films set in Russia and China are well made and notable as the last film appearance of Sue Lloyd. Its her in the clip above. Not a great actress but good at what she did. I watched the Ipcress File and went straight out and bought a bodum coffee press like he uses in the film. Sadly it didn’t get me a lady like Sue Lloyd but it makes great coffe !!!!!

  3. A little known piece of Internet trivia: Len Deighton was a buddy of Ian Fleming and wrote script for thunderball and other bond films. Don’t believe me? There is a Len Deighton fan website. I leave to all you budding secret agents to googl for it

  4. Caine was hardly “hitherto unknown” – Zulu, staring Caine, came out the year before Ipcress and was a huge hit and appears on the BFI list at number 31.

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