The IPCRESS File (1965)

Country: United Kingdom
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Frank Gatliff
Music by John Barry
Based on the novel by Len Deighton

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).

The IPCRESS File (1965)

The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)

Director: Don Sharp
Starring: Christopher Lee, Tsai Chin, Nigel Green, Karin Dor, Howard Marion Crawford, Joachim Fuchsberger, James Robertson Justice
Music: Christopher Whelen
Based on a character created by Sax Rohmer

“Cruel, Callous, Brilliant – and the most Evil Man in the World!”

The Face Of Fu Manchu probably isn’t really a spy film, but in style and content, it is in some some ways connected to the spy films of the sixties. But rather than focussing on the square jawed, heroic figure that dominates so many spy films, this film focuses on the villain, Fu Manchu (even though he doesn’t get as much screen time). It does feature espionage, and Fu Manchu certainly resembles the type of villain that the James Bonds, and Matt Helms would do battle with.

This is the first of five films that producer Harry Alan Towers (and his alter ego, screenwriter Peter Welbeck) made featuring Sax Rohmer’s character Fu Manchu. Out of all five, this is the only one that is quite good. Maybe that is on the strength of Nigel Green as Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard, Fu Manchu’s archenemy. Green only appeared in this episode. Douglas Wilmer portrayed Nayland Smith in the next two films, and for the final installments, Richard Greene took over the mantle. At least the villains were consistent. Christopher Lee played Fu Manchu, and Tsai Chin appeared as Fu Manchu’s malevolent daughter, Lin Tang for all the five films in the series.

The film opens in China. We are in a prison courtyard and an execution is taking place. The man to be executed is Fu Manchu. On hand to witness the execution is Nayland Smith of Scotland Yard. Fu Manchu is marched to a chopping block, and with a lusty blow from a scimitar; his head is cleaved from his body.

Afterwards, Nayland Smith is back in London, and he has landed a cushy desk job, which he is not happy about. He is sure that the ‘Crime Wave’ sweeping Europe is the work of one criminal mastermind. But none of his superiors want to hear about it. The only person who has time for Nayland Smith’s theories is Dr. Petrie (Howard Marion Crawford). For the uninitiated, Dr. Petrie is to Nayland Smith, what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes.

Then we are introduced to Professor Hans Müller (Walter Rilla) and his young assistant. In a pea-soup fog they turn up at an old church in Limehouse. They enter the grounds of the ‘apparently’ deserted church. The assistant is strangled as he wanders through the yard. The Professor was told to come on his own. He is taken inside. And who is behind all this? The still very much alive Fu Manchu.

The next day, the Professor’s assistant’s dead body is found. Around his neck is a red prayer scarf, with a medallion of the Goddess Kali tied into one of the corners. Naturally enough, Nayland Smith has seen all this before. It is the work of Burmese Dacoits. They believe the act of murder is blessed by the Goddess Kali, and every ritual killing is a passport to heaven. But the Dacoits must have someone controlling them, and even though he knows it is impossible, after all he saw the man executed, Nayland Smith believes that Fu Manchu is the man behind the killing. He plans to visit Professor Müller an ask him some questions.

At Professor Müller’s home, his daughter, Maria (Karin Dor) waits for his return. As she waits a Dacoit pays her a visit. She Screams. At that moment Karl Janssen (Joachim Fuchsberger), Professor Müller’s research partner, arrives and rushes to her aid. By this time the Dacoit has dissapeared but has left behind a message:

“If you value your Father’s life – say nothing of his disappearance.”

Suddenly there’s a noise in the laboratory down stairs. Janssen rushes down to investigate and gets into a noisy fist-fight with Nigel Green’s stunt double (who’s silhouette looks nothing like Green’s). Before they kill each other, Maria rushes down and turns on the light, and the men stop.

But why is Fu Manchu interested in Professor Müller? Professor Müller had previously studied in Tibet. His research brought him in contact with a flower called the Black Hill Poppy. The flower is incredibly rare, and the Professor needs it for his research. The Professor had received a letter two days previously, saying that if he went to the old church in Limehouse he would be given some special supplies. Naturally the Professor went, and he was captured by Fu Manchu. Fu Manchu knows that a powerful poison can be manufactured from the Black Hill Poppy. A poison so strong, that one-pint would kill everyone in London. A sure enough, that is exactly what evil mastermind Fu Manchu would like to get his hands on.

Of course, I couldn’t talk about a Fu Manchu film without mentioning Christopher Lee as the evil Doctor. And although next to Dracula, Fu Manchu is the character Lee is most associated with (I don’t count Saruman or Count Dooku), it isn’t a particularly good portrayal. He gets to spout some ridiculous dialogue in a clipped, quasi-Chinese accent, and wear some fake eyepieces to make him look Asian. His main menacing attribute is his height. On the other hand, Tsai Chin as Lin Tang is deliciously evil. For Bond fans, Tsai Chin appeared in You Only Live Twice and has a nice cameo in the 2006 Casino Royale.

Nigel Green is one of the great character actors, adding weight and class to a myriad of productions. Notable performances in espionage movies include The IPCRESS File, Deadlier Than The Male, and The Wrecking Crew. He also did quite a bit of television work, appearing in shows such as Danger Man, The Avengers and The Persuaders. His portrayal of Nayland Smith is the best in the Fu Manchu series, and it is a shame that he only appeared in this film.

The Face Of Fu Manchu is quite a good film. It’s reputation is somewhat tarnished by the lesser films in the series, but as a stand-alone movie, this works extremely well as a period thriller.

The Fu Manchu films is this series:

• The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)
• The Brides Of Fu Manchu (1966)
• The Vengeance Of Fu Manchu (1967)
• The Blood Of Fu Manchu (1968)
• The Castle Of Fu Manchu (1969)

This review is based on the Universal Pictures (Australasia) Pty Ltd DVD

The Face Of Fu Manchu (1965)