Accompanying the development of the James Bond franchise is a series of 'anti-Bond' alternatives to 007. Alongside spoofs like Austin Powers and the original Casino Royale, there are a series of 'serious' or grittier films which offered an alternative to the increasingly silly, gadget-driven adventures of Ian Fleming's favourite son.
People of my generation will most probably think of the rivalry between Bond and Jason Bourne, with both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace taking many cues from the Paul Greengrass instalments. Go back a few decades and you have John Le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which examined the Cold War conflict through power struggles within the British secret service. But before Le Carré's spy came in from the cold (as played by Richard Burton), there was Len Deighton and his antihero Harry Palmer, which resulted in "the thinking-man's Goldfinger", The Ipcress File.
Although The Ipcress File was billed as a serious alternative to Bond, its relationship to the Bond series is a little more complicated. The film was produced by the same producer as Bond (Harry Saltzman), scored by the same composer (John Barry) and even designed by the same production designer (Ken Adam). You might think that the involvement of such people would mean that the film wouldn't set itself apart, but in fact it works entirely in its favour. There are enough common elements to bring in audiences and reassure them, so that when the departures come we are immediately more settled and willing to accept them.
The big departure of The Ipcress File is its emphasis on the humdrum nature of everyday spying. While Bond seems to do nothing but attend posh parties, travel to exotic locations and do death-defying stunts, Harry Palmer is introduced like an ordinary guy who just happens to be working for the British government. The opening section of the film is deliberately slow-paced, using Michael Caine's charisma to guide through the exposition where the mission is introduced, and subsequently to compensate for audience expectations of chase sequences and the like.
Much like the works of John Le Carré, the most consistent form of conflict in The Ipcress File is internal rather than external. The film focusses on the increasing bureaucracy of the secret service, with agents being forced to fill in lots of forms and write up all their "legwork". Being by the book is considered every bit as important as being right, as Palmer is reprimanded for not filling in the correct form when he orders the raid of the warehouse. Until the recent version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, this was one of the best depictions of government malaise ever seen on screen.
The monotonous nature of Palmer's life and the service that surrounds him is epitomised by the opening credits. Instead of a flashy pre-title sequence, with Sean Connery laying explosives and electrocuting someone in a bath, we get a series of shots of Michael Caine slowly getting up and making coffee, before going about his daily observations. Every part of the process is played out in clinical detail, so that the disappearance of the scientist just before the credits feels like just another job for him to handle. While modern spy films often start with a bang as well as ending with one, The Ipcress File has the confidence to start downbeat and remain so for some time.
The film also examines the arcane and awkward relationship between the secret service and the military. It is interesting that both Deighton and Fleming worked in military intelligence and yet only the former places any direct emphasis on the military in his writings. Both MI5 and MI6 were formed as joint initiatives between the Admiralty and the War Office, and so both carry a history of two organisations with shared ends fighting over the means, or vice versa.
Palmer is introduced as an ex-sergeant, drafted into the secret services to avoid going to prison due to his dealings on the black market. His insubordination stems equally from resentment of his treatment by the military and his frustration at not being able to use his other skills, such as gourmet cooking. Dalby is described as a "passed-over major", as if to imply that working for the secret service is an inferior means of serving one's country, rather than just an underhand one. There is also a contrast between the parochial nature of the British military and the ruthless Albanian soldiers who capture and torture Palmer in the final act.
The Ipcress File's greatest asset is the performance of Michael Caine. In his first genuine lead role, he gives a masterclass in understatement, constantly reining himself in and resisting the urge to lash out or show off until circumstances become desperate enough to do so. Bond producer Albert 'Cubby' Broccoli commented that Sean Connery "walked like a panther" when he left the audition for Dr. No., and there is a slight swagger to Caine's performance. But there is nothing in his face or still posture to give anything else away, and until the final reel he is the epitome of distant, disaffected cool.
Since Caine is the only actor to have played Harry Palmer, calling his performance the default feels like damning with very faint praise. But he is credited with actually naming the character, who in Deighton's original novels is anonymous. The story goes that Caine was asked to think of the most boring names he could, and came out with Harry and a boy he went to school with called Tommy Palmer. It's an interesting little piece of trivia which reinforces the fact that Caine knew the character inside out (or at least well enough to play him in four more films).
For much of its running time, The Ipcress File is very gently paced. It's difficult to call it a thriller since for a long time it doesn't feel the need to get on with matters. But this all changes in the last 20 minutes when the film really shows its gritty edge and all the different characters become fatally intertwined. Even for audiences who have grown up with 'torture porn', or seeing Daniel Craig beaten with a rope in Casino Royale, the torture scenes are really tense and as painful as they should be.
This sequence really hammers home the departures The Ipcress File makes from the spy thriller norm. Watching Bond confront his enemies was like watching the Batman TV series: you knew that no matter how dangerous or devious their schemes, he wouldn't have much trouble getting out alive. There's no such element of certainty here, where Palmer is dragged from his cell every time he tries to fall asleep and repeatedly tortured with the IPCRESS technique. The technique is actually based in fact, resembling the 'psychic driving' technique tested by the CIA under MKULTRA.
The one aspect of The Ipcress File which occasionally lets it down is the direction. Sidney J. Furie's subsequent career left a lot to be desired, including an unofficial credit on The Jazz Singer remake and the utterly rubbish Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. While he does maintain tension pretty well, he doesn't have any of the free-flowing energy or panache that Ken Russell brought to the second sequel, Billion Dollar Brain. Many of his visual choices don't hold up, as the film resorts to off-putting Dutch angles on far too many occasions.
While it never captured the public imagination quite like its counterpart, The Ipcress File has aged surprisingly well among 1960s spy thrillers both on film and TV. Despite the slow-pacing and occasionally ham-fisted direction it still holds up as a very good antidote to the sillier end of spy fiction, laying the groundwork for the success of John Le Carré and ultimately for Jason Bourne. Above all it's a good, solid tense little thriller, with quite a bit to say and enough to entertain you while it says it.