The Ipcress File is a 1965 espionage thriller exuding Swinging Sixties charm and style. It’s also the movie that put one of Britain’s biggest film stars – Michael Caine – firmly on the map.
It inevitably draws comparison to the James Bond movies, since a bewigged Sean Connery was already well underway in that franchise; and The Ipcress File is similarly produced by Harry Saltzman and enjoys a classic John Barry score – two defining features of the early Bonds.
Yet the differences are more notable than the similarities. Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer (unnamed in Len Deighton’s book upon which the film is based) is an ordinary, working class spy. He wears glasses, cooks for himself and enjoys classical music. He takes on jobs for the secret service to avoid prison. There are no glamorous and exotic locations (St James Park in London doesn’t count), bikini-clad babes or silly gadgets to be found in Harry Palmer’s murky world of counter-espionage. Palmer is the anti-Bond – and all the more distinctive and real because of it.
The plot sees top scientists disappearing and reappearing with their minds altered so that they can no longer remember their work (the brainwashing device recalls The Manchurian Candidate). Whilst uncovering the truth about Ipcress, Palmer finds himself trailed by the CIA and up against a possible double agent within his department.
The Ipcress File is a solid espionage thriller with enough surprises to keep it engaging. Undoubtedly, it’s Michael Caine’s cocky and truthful creation that raises the film to classic status, although John Barry’s magnificent score, suitably different to his Bond music, adds brilliantly to the moody atmosphere of the piece. Director Sidney J Furie finds some interesting angles and shoots everyone as if they’re under surveillance. It proves a highly effective artistic decision. The stylishness of the film compensates for what is a fairly linear plot, though the climax in a warehouse is rewarding.
Supporting roles go to Guy Doleman (the original Number Two in The Prisoner) and Nigel Green (reasonably prolific until his premature death) as Palmer’s bosses; as well as regularly-employed Scot Gordon Jackson who plays Palmer’s ally in cracking the Ipcress case.
The Ipcress File looks and sounds magnificent in high definition, in a transfer from the original 35mm film elements. The colours have always been suitably muted, but they are much clearer than in previous releases.
Some of the substantial extras come across from Network’s earlier DVD release. They include a twenty-minute interview with Michael Caine, who recalls the making of the movie. He tells some beautiful tales, not least about the German Jewish cinematographer Otto Heller, and becomes misty-eyed recalling how the film helped to launch his career.
There is also a forty-five minute 1969 documentary called Candid Caine, shot on grainy colour film, in which a camera crew follows Maurice Micklewhite back to his roots. Caine returns to childhood homes and schools, hugging and kissing proud old women who always knew he’d make something of himself along the way. The best parts of the documentary see the eloquent star talk in excoriating fashion about British class distinction, but for the most part he’s disarmingly witty and chatty. Michael Caine Goes Stella is a treat for fans of Stella Street: comedian Phil Cornwell recreates his famous Michael Caine impersonation for an irreverent look at The Ipcress File. Commentary fans can enjoy director Sidney J Furie and editor Peter Hunt give their thoughts on the final cut.
Combining great picture and sound with a host of excellent extra features ensures that this release of a classic British spy movie is definitive. Michael Caine was there to stay: and The Ipcress File proves why.
The Ipcress File is released as part of Network’s The British Film collection.