The Ipcress File Reviews

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Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
June 1, 2012
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.
Super Reviewer
January 10, 2012
Before Jason Bourne and..... Before Harry Callahan and Popeye Doyle..there was Harry Palmer. Michael Caine made his first appearance as novelist Len Deighton's bespectacled British-spy Harry Palmer in the first of three movies based on this character,and "The Ipcress File" released in 1965 gave moviegoers an alternative to James Bond in director Sidney J, Furie brilliant espionage thriller that was one of the best of the "spy" genres that dominated the era. Caine unravels a sinister plot to brainwash British scientists in which his own insubordinate nature is his best weapon But the plots themselves are the reason why this film was at the top it's genre and it was an alternative to the James Bond films and other espionage thrillers of the 1960's. Shot and cut in brash,claustrophobic style,this thriller has a dash of 1940's hardboiled noir,while allowing Caine to flash enough suave to make the ladies squirm in their seats. Advertised as the thinking man's "Goldfinger","The Ipcress File" is regarded as a darker version with more violent and harsher overtones.
Super Reviewer
½ August 12, 2007
At the rise of the 007 mania, and the effervescence of the swingin' sixties and the new wave, square secret service agent Harry Palmer was born.
Most of the same people who gave life to Fleming's spy; including John Barry, Ken Adam and many more; had their hands in this, his antithesis. A myopic, expert cook who has to deal with uninteresting tasks of surveillance and piles of paper to fill; thick cockney accents; rigid bureaucratic bosses; and some other dirty businesses going on behind his back.
Director Sidney J. Furie injects angular, lavish and noirish camera work; and the old chap Michael Cain is always efficient.
Super Reviewer
½ January 9, 2007
Intelligent and perfectly cast 60s spy thriller that's a little too self conciously gimmicky for it's own good, but Caine's on top form, and the brainwashing scene is highly memorable.
Super Reviewer
August 30, 2006
Quite an amazing british-spy thriller. Much more realistic than the James Bond franchise,mainly because everything in this film is totallt shot on location in England. And of course Michael Caine as Harry Palmer is excellent. Highly recomended
Super Reviewer
October 18, 2007
Caine was born to play these roles....Superb
½ April 25, 2012
Michael Caine stars as Harry Palmer, a sort of thinking man's James Bond. It's produced by Harry Saltzman, who was also one of the major producers who helped bring Bond to the big screen. The film is well written and performed, and its an entertaining espionage film. It lacks the excitement and style that makes the Bond films such a success..but in a way thats the point. It is meant to be the antithesis to Bond. I liked the movie, but I don't know if its nearly as entertaining as a good Bond film, though it is definitely superior to most Moore or Lazenby lead efforts of 007.
August 19, 2011
While the movie was good, I felt like it was too slow a pace for me. Definitely better than some James Bond movies, but a little boring nonetheless.
August 9, 2011
The Ipress File is the first in the Harry Palmer series and is set during the Cold War. I'm not a huge spy movie or spy novel fan, but there's just something about this series is utterly charming - perhaps it's the character of Palmer. I like that Palmer is kind of the anti-James Bond. Palmer is not equipped with any special weapons, unless one counts wit and luck. The Ipcress File explores mind control as a war method and the special effects are off the hook.
May 2, 2009
An interesting film. Kinda like a Dirty-Harry-ish James Bond. Great ending! Cool to see a young Michael Caine.
½ October 20, 2008
Kind of like a blend between James Bond and the Manchurian Candidate. 3.5 stars is probably generous, but it's pretty ok for that type of film.
½ November 9, 2006
Spy thrillers rarely get better than this fairly realistic adaptation of Len Deigthon's novel. Wonderful performances from everyone involved. It's also pretty obvious that the Austin Powers character is somewhat influenced by Caine's Harry Palmer in this film (check out the glasses.) Great stuff.
August 1, 2015
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March 4, 2015
The word "Ipcress" is the key to the movie and not really a Macguffin at all (as it might first seem to be when newly minted spy comes across it in an abandoned warehouse). As with all spy thrillers (and I was in the mood for a good one), the plot here has many twists and even the different British spy agencies can't seem to trust each other. Young Michael Caine (seeming more and more a contradiction in terms these days) is full of Cockney insubordination and an eye on the birds. This could be a parallel universe to the Bond series with a more realistic bent - until the Manchurian Candidate-styled conclusion (which takes things to a definite psychedelic place). So, in the end, it's not quite the grey world of Le Carré but rather a bit of adventure for the lads (and lasses).
½ February 27, 2015
Intriguing espionage drama, based on the Len Deighton novel.

Decent, reasonably complex, plot. Not 100% watertight, but the holes aren't big.

Solid direction by Sidney J Furie. Movie moves along at a decent pace and he builds the tension well. Does miss a few beats though. Some scenes are quite flat and almost pointless.

Good final few scenes which make it all worthwhile and bring everything together.

Good performance by Michael Caine in the lead role. Not your average spy - he is almost the anti-James Bond. Resourceful, but slovenly and, well, human. Seemed much more like a real agent would be than James Bond.

Good support from Nigel Green and Guy Doleman.
½ January 8, 2012
not bad, very typical of the time. The story is a bit silly though.
December 25, 2014
Better than every James Bond movie to date.
August 30, 2014
People who dislike this movie maybe because they already being endorsed with the Bond - style spy world. Well, this is all different, it's a complete 180 degrees and gives you an almost accurate view in the spy world : Low payoff, death, instinct, and initiative rather than relying on luck. Palmer can lose anytime and he struggle to survive, this was also Caine's most iconic act in the movies.
September 22, 2013
One of the best British films from the 1960s, very well written, superbly directed and acted with one of the best musical scores ever. A film that is also very much of its time, and it is all the better for it.
March 9, 2014
Bond la patrat. Fara bling, totusi.
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