Harry Saltzman, one of the Producers of the Bond franchise went out on his own and produced this ultra cool Michael Caine spy thriller. In The IPCRESS File, which is based on a book by Len Deighton, Caine plays working class secret agent Harry Palmer. Despite Saltzman’s participation, Palmer is very different to Bond.
Imagine James Bond, heading up a team of ninjas, who are standing on the lip of a hollowed out volcano which houses the lair of an evil mastermind. But instead of storming the complex, Bond and the ninjas have to wait for their L101 form to be processed, and they have to receive TX82 clearance from headquarters. Obviously the worlds that James Bond and Harry Palmer inhabit are very different. Bond’s is one of action and instinct, whereas Palmer’s is one of rules, bureaucracy and paperwork. Despite this less glamourous world, The IPCRESS File is an excellent film, and Harry Palmer is an intriguing hero.
One of the thing that has always struck me about The IPCRESS File is that it is not packaged very well. On video in Australia, it first incarnation was in a drab Mondrian inspired package with orange and black lines. Later Village Roadshow released it – the packaging was better with a dominant photographic image of Michael Caine, but it wasn’t flash. When you look at the colourful painterly images of the James Bond, Derek Flint or Matt Helm films of the same era, then old Harry Palmer comes off second best. This subdued promotional approach works both for and against the film. It works against the film in that The IPCRESS File is one of the truly great sixties spy films and deserves to be thrust into the public eye. But it also works for the film in that Harry Palmer is not a glossy spy hero like Bond, Flint or Helm. Palmer isn’t assigned to glamorous missions and he isn’t equipped with an inexhaustible supply of gadgets to get him out of tricky situations. No, Palmer is more like a glorified policeman. But isn’t that what real ‘intelligence work’ is all about – hunting for and then chasing down leads. The villains in Palmer’s world don’t let them selves be known and certainly wouldn’t be found attracting attention to themselves in a casino playing baccarat. It takes a real spy to find them.
So Palmer is a blue collar spy, and he works for Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). Or at least he did. At the start of the film, Palmer is given a promotion and a transfer. His new superior is Major Dalby (Nigel Green). Dalby’s department is working on what they call the ‘Brain Drain’ problem. It seems that many of Britain’s best and brightest scientist have either disappeared or have become burnt out and useless. Dalby doesn’t believe it is a co-incidence, and when another scientist, Radcliffe goes missing, Dalby assigns all his men to track him down.
But Dalby’s department isn’t completely clueless. There is one man who has been known to deal in kidnapped scientists – that’s not much of a job description is it? ‘What do you do for a living? – I deal in kidnapped scientists!’ This rotters name is Eric Ashley Grantby (Frank gatliff), and he has been codenamed ‘Blue Jay’. Pamler is assigned to track down Grantby, and like a bloodhound, track him down he does. Through an old contact at Scotland Yard, Palmer learns that Grantby has received three parking tickets over the last year – all in the same location – outside a public library. Palmer gets along to the library and makes contact with Blue Jay. But Grantby doesn’t appear to want to play ball, The telephone number he gives Palmer has been disconnected. It looks like it is back to square one for Palmer.
The IPCRESS File is an amazing film to watch. It is heavily stylised with scenes shot through key holes, phone boxes and lamp shades. Often the angles are skewed to throw the viewer off balance, but never does this visual trickery seem incongruous. It is simply another way of looking at things. It’s almost as if, we the viewers are ‘the spies’ – catching glimpses of something we are not supposed to see.
The score by maestro John Barry is brilliant as well. Unlike some of his work on the Bond series, this soundtrack is moody and tense. The muted trumpet (I presume by Derek Watkins?) is haunting over the zithery strings that make up the bulk of the score.
Uniformly the cast is very good. Michael Caine is an actor I love to watch. I love the fact, that mixed right up with all his great performances – like Get Carter, The Italian Job, Dressed To Kill, and The Man Who Would Be King (how good is that film?) – there is some real shit – like The Island, The Jigsaw Man, Bullseye and Jaws 4. He is (or was – he’s more selective these days) a jobbing actor. When I watch a Michael Caine film for the very first time, there is always this tremendous amount of anticipation. I don’t know what I am going to see. Will it be a masterpiece or is it going to be a ham-fisted piece of trash. But The IPCRESS File has other actors in it besides Michael Caine. It also features Nigel Green. I mean Nigel Green! What an actor! The guy was in Zulu (with Michael Caine – ah, that was a good one), and he was in Play Dirty (with Michael Caine – er, that was a bad one). Green also played my favourite Nayland Smith in The Face Of Fu Manchu. He even popped up in The Wrecking Crew. In the late sixties, the guy was everywhere. Rounding out the cast we have Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross and genre favourite Gordon Jackson as Jock Carswell. Apparently Guy Doleman is an Australian, but I can’t remember seeing him in any Australian shows. Like most Aussie actors in the sixties, he fled to London and plied his craft over there. He played Count Lippy in Thunderball, and then Colonel Ross in the three original Harry Palmer films. That’s all I know about the guy. I am sure he would have worked on quite a few television shows.
The IPCRESS File is one of the classic spy films from the halcyon days of the genre. It’s not Bond, or even a Bond imitator – it’s something different, but that ‘something’ is exciting and mesmerising to watch. If you’re just starting your journey into the world of spy films, this has to be one of your first ports of call. It is a core spy film from the period. If you have seen The IPCRESS File a great many times – well then I am preaching to the converted – may I suggest that you drag out your old battered and worn VHS (or sparking DVD) and give it another whirl. It deserves to be watched again (and again).