I can imagine that in 1965 the spy movie genre was as set in stone as the American computer-animated talking animal movie is nowadays. After all, by the mid sixties, three James Bond films had been released — the most recent of which was Goldfinger — with Thunderball just around the corner. It must have been something of a gamble, then, for legendary James Bond producer Harry Saltzman to bring out a spy movie that was was very much not in the increasingly glamorous James Bond mould.
Enter Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), neither master spy nor master seducer. If James Bond walks into the office wearing a tuxedo and gets sent off to exotic locales, Harry’s typical day involves sitting around and filing ironically uneventful ‘incident’ reports. A hundred pound raise when he’s assigned to a new department is an achievement for him, and he wants to seek out his predecessor to figure the job out rather than hit the casino and sidle up to the nearest sexy woman.
Unfortunately for Harry, his predecessor is dead; murdered while minding an eminent physicist, the latest in a string of abductions and defections that has the British government worried. It’s a James Bond plot with none of the James Bond execution, and in this case, that’s a very, very good thing.
I’m not sure what Sidney J. Furie‘s brand of cinema entails. One look at this Canadian director’s oeuvre — which includes everything from remakes of The Jazz Singer to Superman IV and several Iron Eagle entries — might lead you to trot out the ‘Journeyman’ tag. However, if The Ipcress File is anything to go by, the rest of his work might need some further scrutiny. For The Ipcress File is a proper art movie, filtered through the lens of an hardboiled, grey as rainclouds espionage story.
One of the most striking things about the movie is the cinematography, by veteran Otto Heller (seriously, this man has two-hundred-and-thirty-five credits on imdb, the first of which was in 1918). From handheld POV shots to a recurring theme of characters seen through bars or windows, the camerawork is both classic, expressive, and fresh even now, forty-five years later.
Michael Caine underplays Harry Palmer for the most part, and with good reason. Later sequences require more histrionics (which he delivers), and Palmer is pitched quite realistically as a Cockney smart alec who’s wiling away his time in a boring government job because the alternative (Harry was in military prison, with the constant threat of being sent back if he gets too insubordinate) is even worse. It’s certainly got echoes of Bond and Bond-like flamboyance — Palmer’s maverick tendency is exactly what makes him a good operative — but against the backdrop of grey, sooty by-the-numbers espionage, it actually fits.
And that, above all, is the reason The Ipcress File is still considered a classic. Its inventive, distinct cinematography, restrained John Barry score, seemingly mundane characters with sparkling wits and oddball dialogue (Nigel Green as Harry’s new boss is particularly noteworthy)– all add up to a movie that shouldn’t, by conventional wisdom, work together, and yet it forms a whole that is much more powerful and memorable than the sum of its parts.