THE IPCRESS FILE—-suitably impressed by Michael Caine’s “introduction” in the previous year’s Zulu, producer Harry Saltzman cast the 32-year-old in his first lead, this 1965 inauguration of the brief ‘Harry Palmer’ spy series. Caine had actually been appearing in bits for eight years before the 1964 South African battle epic gave him a proper launch, but the critical and popular success of this, immediately followed by the bigger hit of Alfie, made him a star.
Co-producer of the 007 films, Saltzman made sure to have cake and eat it by presenting author Len Deighton’s anti-Bond in Palmer. Deighton’s novel (his first) came out in 1962, coming up against Ian Fleming’s 11th Bond book and beating John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold to the gate by a year. By ’65, with the first three 007 films shaking up the globe and Thunderball landing for Christmas, the Bond ripple effect stirred a flood of competitors, from the ultra-serious to the spoofy. The larks, led by Our Man Flint and The Silencers, made more money; the bleak ‘adult’ entrees got the praise. The downplayed violence, low-key pace and complicated plotting of the Deighton/Palmer/Caine combo hit the target on the serious side but Palmer’s sardonic wit and Caine’s handsome likability pepped some smiles into the de-glamorized Cold War double-crossing and thankless governmental bureaucracy behind the stakes.
Caine’s Palmer is dogged and capable, but workaday, more of a regular bloke (and risen Cockney) than infallible sex machine; the villains not grandiose world-wreckers with vast lairs and armies of willing cannon-fodder but snide turf-battling infighters and calculating opportunists. No Aston-Martin’s, laser beams or martinis. Instead of Lois Maxwell’s bright and spiffy ‘Miss Moneypenny’, Palmer makes do with frumpy Pauline Winters with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
As he searches for a kidnapped scientist amid a welter of conflicting leads, loyalties and a grueling, prolonged session of brainwashing, Palmer endures class warfare and fences put-downs from dual bosses, played with dripping sarcasm by Guy Doleman and Nigel Green (Caine’s stiff-upper-lipped Sergeant, bucking up Rorke’s Drift in Zulu).
Writing for “Sight And Sound”,Geoffrey Nowell-Smith drily observed “For the first time in a British film heroism is no longer the prerogative of a tight-lipped aristocracy imbued with the public-school ethos.” Quite. Enthused reviews and a spy-hungry audience led to a strong enough box-office take of over $8,000,000, coming in 47th for the year, paving way to a pair of sequels.
Sidney J. Furie had directed 10 inconsequential films before given the reins here and he did a good job, though his constant visual gimmickry with camera angles came in for a slew of jabs. Saltzman hated him and barred him from the editing process. That not enough, the vengeful producer kept Furie from the premiere party at Cannes and, according to Furie, even swiped the director’s BAFTA award!*
Otto Heller manned the camera for Furie’s inspirations. Helping with mood were Bond armorers John Barry to score, Peter Hunt editing, Ken Adam for production design and Peter Murton on art direction. Barry dropped the exciting electric guitars and lush strings of 007 for a simple theme here, using a cimbalon (a Hungarian dulcimer) to evoke a forlorn backdrop to Palmer’s lonely, prosaic duties .**
Excellent screenplay from Bill Canaway and James Doran. 108 minutes, with Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards and Frank Gatliffe.
* Furie did steer Diana Ross to an Oscar nomination for Lady Sings The Blues and his The Boys In Company C is a good, unsung Vietnam film, but most of his Ipcress-subsequent output was lousy. We cite: The Appaloosa, The Naked Runner (Most Boring Spy Movie Ever), Gable And Lombard (my dear,we really don’t give a damn),The Entity, Iron Eagle (and sequels), Superman IV: The Quest For Peace.
** The score has its loyal fans, and I love Barry, but I’m not nuts about this one, and he refrains some strident tones during the brainwashing sequence that remind those not inclined to high-pitch sounds of the insistent pinging from Jocelyn Pook’s massacre of Eyes Wide Shut–see: Drive Me Screaming From Theater Looking For An Axe.