The Ipcress File starring Michael Caine (1965) … Remembered
As if some Robert Redford political thrillers weren’t enough, I was lucky enough to discover a spy film called The Ipcress File (1965), which tries its best to be everything James Bond is not. In this way, The Ipcress File is a study in contrasts, although both James Bond and Michael Caine’s character are British. But that’s neither here nor there, because just about everything else in The Ipcress File has been included to contrast Bond and to offer an alternative to his glamorous outings.
What is Ipcress? It is an acronym, which is about as common as it gets in a spy film. James Bond had SPECTRE and SMERSH, this film has IPCRESS, the Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under streSS, in order words, mind control. This mind control is used on Caine later on. This film was co-produced by Harry Saltzman, who also worked on several Bond films, but helps create a grounded spy film here. With this in mind, Caine’s character is an everyman, a normal man named Harry Palmer, who is part of the working class, quite unlike the high-class James Bond.
The movie opens with the kidnapping of a scientist. We know he is a scientist because he is reading a science magazine. Let’s not be too obvious, guys. We then are introduced to Harry Palmer. He lives in a normal-looking apartment and has some normal-looking coffee in the morning. Instead of tucking a Walter PPK into a holster, Palmer hides his Mauser Pocket Pistol in the waistband of his pants. He goes to work, taking a menial stakeout job. He writes reports. He sorts through transcripts of the tapped phones. Are you seeing any contrasts yet?
To relieve him of his boredom, his boss summons Harry to assist with a new case. Michael Caine is amusing in his role as Palmer, at least at this point in the movie, and he quips as much as any good spy should, telling jokes and making light of serious situations. His boss assigns him to a new operative, who wants to recover the scientist kidnapped at the beginning of the film.
To begin his investigation, Palmer makes contact with Grantby, their most likely suspect. After a bit of back and forth, Palmer tracks him down and there is some time spent keeping track of where Grantby goes, like a real spy might do. Only, someone pretending to be Palmer, starts going around as Palmer, and it annoys the begeebus out of him. The real Palmer, I mean. The bad guys seem a step ahead of the good guys and it gets to be a bit of a tiring runaround. I was happy when they finally caught up with them, but nothing is resolved.
Caine is captured by the bad guys and tortured, brainwashed by Ipcress, which is apparently the power of flashing lights and hypnosis. But Palmer doesn’t go for it and uses pain to clear his mind, foiling their diabolical plot. It is an over-the-top situation just like James Bond, except without the wit and the striking dialogue. This is an espionage study, and there are elements to like, but it just drags and drags, making me wish for high action, more coy quips, or at least a gadget or two.
This film does have similarities with James Bond despite my copious explanations about the contrasts. John Barry does the score for this film. His previous work was composing the James Bond theme in Dr. No in 1962, but the main tune here is a somber theme. It’s kinda catchy though. Of the characters, Palmer is quite intelligent and everyone else is interchangeable. Palmer has a bit of anti-authority in him, just like Bond, and his boss doesn’t like him.
Overall, I would say that they didn’t go far enough with the everyman spy concept, and could have explored so much more with this idea. As it is, they tried to pick and choose what makes James Bond work without some of the individual parts, which is a stupid idea. Of course, you might say that about the Daniel Craig Bond too, but at least it knows what it is, unlike this film, which is begging to be taken seriously as an espionage thriller.
All in all, I would say that The Ipcress File is an average movie. I couldn’t believe the amount of websites giving this movie a pass and not criticizing it for its dull middle section and bland characters. Michael Caine saves this movie from becoming a complete bore, but at least the direction is much better than most spy films and it is interesting to look at, despite being set completely in London. With their everyman theme, there’s no traveling for this spy, no romping around the globe, and Harry Palmer does not raise his voice above the casual, much less break a sweat. The New York Times put it right in their 1965 review: Harry Palmer is an intelligent sleuth, but will never take the place of James Bond.