For as long as James Bond has existed as the definitive, iconic image of the superspy for millions of people across the globe, there have been anti-Bonds put forward as direct opposition, taking their cues from the immaculate Bond template and pointedly running in the other direction. Sometimes this is done as a deliberate satire, and sometimes you could argue whether or not the filmmakers were even aware that they were shadowboxing 007.
The Ipcress File is very much aware. Produced by Harry Saltzman, one of the early masterminds of the Bond films, Flemings’ superspy was so much on the mind that Michael Caine’s not-super spy’s name, Harry Palmer, was deliberately chosen to be as bland and unassuming as possible (the character in the source novel goes unnamed) in contrast to the notorious Bond, James Bond moniker.
As portrayed by a young (and yet still positively weathered) Caine, Harry Palmer is a grubby man surrounded by other grubby men inhabiting a grey and grubby world that doesn’t have a drop of glamor to share with anyone. The grim, paranoid cynicism of The Ipcress File was a pointed retort to the swinging sixties of the Bond films, and it makes for a thriller that still crackles on its new Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber.
A former thief who has been pressed into espionage service for military service, Harry Palmer is sent by a superior to assist another intelligence agency with a recurring problem: Top British scientists keep disappearing without a trace from under the protection of armed guards, leaving no clue as to who is taking them or why.
Palmer’s superior, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) hopes that the insubordinate, “trickster” Harry will have just the right kind of eyes that will unearth the truth behind whatever is going on.
Indeed, Palmer quickly discovers a sinister plot, with tentacles capable of reaching into and touching any aspect of his life. It’s not long before no one and nowhere is safe, leaving Palmer unmoored as he desperately seeks to learn the meaning of the word “Ipcress” left behind at one mysterious crime scene.
Director Sidney J. Furie was a prolific filmmaker with a…deeply strange career. He went on to direct the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues, then got fired from Neil Diamond’s ‘less black-face than the original but still entirely too much black-face’ remake of The Jazz Singer, followed by the “my haunted house is trying to rape me” chiller The Entity. Other credits from Furie include Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, two Iron Eagle movies, and that movie where Rodney Dangerfield dresses a boy up like a girl to win youth soccer games.
Regardless of the…strange twists and turns of his career, Furie delivers an unhinged energy to the proceedings that keeps things popping along even through long stretches that might have played as nothing more than stolid British character actors looking at paperwork. The camera is always capturing characters between bars or through glass. One striking shot finds Harry discovering a dead body in his apartment, the camera fixed between the fans of an overhead ceiling fan as if we are watching down into a gruesome diorama.
In the closest thing this film has to an action scene, Caine scraps with a suspect’s enforcer in a punch-up shot entirely through the glass of a phonebooth. Along with sprucing up what could have been leisurely procedural, Furie’s choices serve to amplify the sense of paranoia and dislocation, making you feel just as lost and on edge as Harry Palmer must be.
Caine would go on to play Palmer across a series of films, even reprising the character decades later. The film calls its shot early on when Doleman’s Ross announces Harry through a series of put-downs that also double as a promise to the viewers. When you hear that Harry is defined as a “trickster”, it marks him as an entirely different animal from the blunt instrument of Bond.
With his Cockney bent and mashed potato face, Caine certainly doesn’t look the part of a swaggering secret agent, but he sure is believable as a chipper rogue who has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. To the extent that the grim Ipcress File has a heart, it’s in Harry’s slow realization that his glib, unperturbable exterior can’t protect him from the dangers of this line of work. It’s a bloody game, and blood is required if you want to play.
The full conspiracy is so much Cold War hokum, and Ipcress is hurt by the subsequent generations of spy games that have adopted its basic shape and beaten it into familiarity. The more outlandish the conspiracy grows (and it eventually moves completely into the realm of science fiction) the less special this feels as a distinctive flavor of spy-fare divorced from the shadow of Ian Fleming’s Bond.
The Kino Lorber Blu-ray is a handsome disc with a crisp transfer that nonetheless preserves the grimy look and energy of the film’s grey, staunchly working-class world. Production designer Ken Adam was a Bond veteran (his outsized supervillain lairs in the later films remain hugely influential to this day) and he did this film right on the heels of designing Dr. Strangelove. Composer John Barry was also a Bond veteran (presumably both he and Adam were brought over by producer Harry Saltzman) and he nimbly gives this very different spy film a very different sound.
And maybe most importantly of all, director of photography Otto Heller was the man behind the camera for the hypnotic, repulsive Peeping Tom, a movie that makes grotesque art out of the most squalid corners of London life. I’m tempted to give him much of the credit for the voyeuristic framing of much of the film, if only because Peeping Tom remains maybe the definitive film about the voyeuristic aspects of watching or creating a film. Heller’s camera zeroes in on the grit and textures of Harry Palmer’s messy world, grounding each moment in the tactile reality.
The disc also comes with multiple commentaries, an interview with Michael Caine, and other special features. So if the ongoing delays for No Time to Die has you itching for some new spy-fare, definitely take a gander at the dark pleasures to be found in The Ipcress File.
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