Genre Grandeur – The Ipcress File (1965) – Blogging By Cinema Light

For this month’s next review for Genre Grandeur – Spy/Espionage Films here’s a review of The Ipcress File (1965) by James of Blogging By Cinemalight.

Next month’s genre has been chosen by Marc of French Toast Sundays and we will be reviewing our favorite Live Action Disney Films.

Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Nov by sending them to

Try to think out of the box! Great choice Marc!

Let’s see what James thought of this movie:


The Ipcress File (Sidney J. Furie, 1965) The first of the “alternate Bond” films that came out in the 1960’s to take advantage of the “spy craze” of movies while also setting itself apart.

It would be a bit more difficult for this one to do the latter, seeing as how the main producer is Harry Saltzman, one of the duo making the Bond films, and cribbing many of that series’ essential crafts-people—Production Designer Ken Adam, Editor Peter Hunt, Composer John Barry, and Sound supervisor Norman Wanstall—to create this “kitchen-sink” version of Bond. Michael Caine stars as the unnamed protagonist in Len Deighton’s novel, but dubbed “Harry Palmer” in the movie adaptations. Bespectacled and lower-class, he’s a sergeant in the defense ministry doing surveillance work when his less-than-ordinate attitude makes him a suitable candidate for a particular job.

Deighton’s novel was stripped to essentials and the movie-makers went to work.
The issue at hand that Palmer is investigating involves the abduction and brain-washing of critically needed scientists and so the movie starts with a pre-credit sequence that relies on a visual sleight-of-hand as the “minder” for one of these specialists, Radcliffe, after putting his charge on a train, rushes back to give him his left-behind camera only to find another man in his place—the scientist has been abducted. The next shot shows the “minder” dead and discarded in the train station.

This is just the sort of “teaser” that Harry Saltzman was known to come up with in the Bond series—notably the sequence where James Bond is stalked and killed by an assassin in From Russia With Love (only to find that “James Bond” is an imposter used in a training exercise in a Russian assassin camp). That sequence makes no sense—why provide a “James Bond” mask for the victim and how valid is such an exercise if the target is not the same man (and who would volunteer for such duty??). But it’s a suspenseful start, visually, and whets the audience’s expectations that things may become deceptive…if illogical. The Ipcress sequence does the same thing, while also doing the thing with few words of dialogue except the most perfunctory of pleasantries.

Palmer is assigned to replace the dead security agent to track down the source of the “brain-drain”—16 scientists have already been kidnapped. He is handed over from Col. Ross (Guy Doleman) to Major Dalby (Nigel Green), who will handle the internally sensitive operation. Along the way, Palmer will be tracking an Albanian named Grantby (Frank Gatliff), tangle with his bodyguard, launch a seemingly worthless raid on a hide-out, get framed for the murder of two observing CIA agents, sees a colleague get killed, and get a lot of stick about not filling out the proper forms. And he’ll get a little too close to the operation behind it all when he himself gets abducted.

It’s a different sort of spy thriller, despite having some of the familiar trappings. Lines are drawn between class, with a clear difference between Palmer’s stuffy superiors and the scruffy, cock-sure Palmer—”Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies” read his “B107” dossier. But, perhaps, that’s a good thing, as whatever has been tried in the past doesn’t seem to be working.

And it’s different than anything the Bond-artisans had done for that series. Locations are grubby. Adam’s sets are not spacious cathedrals of class and chrome, but tight little spaces for warehousing. Hunt’s editing has no punchy cuts but, instead, lets things play out naturally. And as for the music, where the James Bond Theme (arranged by Barry, it should legally be admitted) has momentum, Barry’s cimbalom-threaded theme for Ipcress ambles and skulks.

But, it’s Furie’s direction that differentiates. Given his cast of actors, Furie concentrates on the mise-en-scéne, one of the most ostentatious examples of a directorial hand waving at the audience. Round about the time in the movie when Palmer begins working for Dalby, the world we see becomes filled with obstruction, the subject of the scene shadowed, obscured, crowded and sometimes isolated by foreground objects that get in our line of sight.

What starts out as a conceit of literal “undercover” presentation almost becomes a running gag as Furie makes us look over, under, around and through all manner of windows, furniture, people, and buildings. A sidewalk fight scene (normally front and center in any action film) is obscured by its vantage point from the interior of a car—there’s no one in it, so it’s not some personal point of view of a character in the film. We begin to get accustomed to looking down through transoms and lampshades. At times, the gambit becomes laughable, as we start looking at scenes through desk in-boxes. It’s taken to the extreme when we’re confronted by the close-up of a ringing telephone, which—when its hand-set is picked up and answered—reveals a government functionary behind it.

This is madness. But there is method to it, if an obvious, hardly secret one. It puts us in the frame of mind of Palmer, having to seek out the answer to the government’s problem while having to contend with the obstructions of man—and by extension, bureaucracy—to find the particular answer of a tree hidden in plain sight by a frustratingly obscuring forest. For the remainder of the film, there will be the occasional image that has nothing in front of it, but it will be rare, and a bit of a shock.

It’s a visual clue to what is going on in the plot, a wink to the audience. But, it also has a quality of the times, a “pop-art” sensibility—it is “the swingin’ ’60’s”, after all—that would inform most of the decade’s spy-films, less than in the visual presentation/direction than in the art direction and set design of lesser entries in the genre.

The Ipcress File is definitely, defiantly, of the times, while setting itself apart. “Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster.”

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