Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Written by Bill Canaway and James Doran (based on the Len Deighton novel)
Starring: Michael Caine, Guy Doleman, Nigel Green, Sue Lloyd
Tagline: The Spy Story of the Century
Trivia: Harry Palmer is credited the first action hero to wear glasses.
Although The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman of James Bond fame, the style and look of the film could not be more different from the Bond franchise. In a star making role, Michael Caine plays Harry Palmer, a methodical counter-espionage agent who likes to challenge authority. Unlike 007, Harry deals with gritty side of spy craft where the work is often mundane and the rewards are sparse.
The plot involves a sudden epidemic of English scientists who come up missing . Harry gets called off a boring surveillance job to pursue leads in the case of the vanishing scientists. His old boss Colonel Ross (Doleman) seems glad to be rid of him, while his new one Major Dalby (Green) appears to be out of his depth, the same goes for his incompetent team of investigators. Soon enough, Harry finds his life in danger.
Unlike Bond we see Harry doing everyday things like shopping at the supermarket. Can you imagine 007 buying groceries? Harry’s only passions are for cooking, classical music, and girls, but has nothing like Bond’s adventurous personal life. So espionage work is boring and the pay is low – and forget about having any privacy.
The locations and camera style of The Ipcress File reinforce the unromantic tone of the story. The office buildings are drab, London is gray and cloudy all the time. No one ever smiles. Even the action sequences are shot without fanfare, during a fight scene the camera is kept distant so the viewer must squint their eyes to see what is happening. No nifty gadgets either, just standard issue guns. John Barry’s music features a cimbalom, creating a low key sound to the music- the complete opposite of his bombastic Bond themes.
The first half does a great job of establishing mood and character. The story picks up in the last act as Harry realizes he’s being set up and discovers a nefarious communist plot. Eventually, he gets captured and his put through psychological torture in an unsettling sequence that looks like a psychedelic art film.
There’s an insular British flavor to The Ipcress File that may be lost on American audiences (including me). While the James Bond films were always British in character- they were made with a global audience in mind. But most noteworthy is Caine as the unassuming everyman, introducing a new type of protagonist to Cold War cinema.