With the recent critical and commercial success of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I can only hope that people will seek out similar films and rediscover, or possibly even encounter for the first time, the wonderful The Ipcress File. This is really the missing link between the gritty, plausible realism of Le Carré and the outlandish thrills of the Bond series. In other words, whilst TTSS is played entirely straight and many of the Bonds feel somewhat less than serious, The Ipcress File just feels right. There’s actually a great deal of overlap with the Bond films of the time – Ken Adam is responsible for the sets, John Barry for the music and, most tellingly, Harry Saltzman is the producer. In fact, the film is in so many ways both an answer to 007 and a chance to try something new with the same ideas.
The film is wonderfully shot by Sidney J Furie. Throughout, we see action obscured by objects in the foreground. Rather than simply plonking stuff in the audience’s lap for the sake of the shot (as is often the case, particularly with movies which feel the need to justify why they were shot in 3D), this doesn’t feel forced, but is an intriguing way to reflect the nature of the characters. Of course, shooting a whole spy thriller as if peering through a keyhole would be disastrously literal, but Furie finds such intriguing angles that it even stops being particularly obvious and becomes simply the way the film feels like it needs to be shot. In one scene, he goes as far as filming the action between the receiver and cradle of a telephone. It’s easy to see why this would be appropriate for a film in which so many of the characters are spying on each other, but it also gives the film an air of obscurity and entrapment, and foreshadows Palmer’s eventual mysterious imprisonment perfectly.
But it’s not just in framing that Furie gets everything right. The film is a masterpiece of pacing. Its tempo is possibly one of the most perfectly judged in cinema, allowing the characters a slow and intriguing opening and giving Palmer the chance to come across as normal and easy to relate to, before the events start to kick off and the story charges ahead. The pacing feels entirely natural, with every element feeling as if it is there because it needs to be. There is no car chase, but there is a gunfight, simply because the story needs it. As a whole, The Ipcress File seems unassuming, almost humble, and as a consequence, even in its more bizarre moments, feels true and honest, even though it can hardly be described as realistic.
The run up to the final scenes, where Palmer is kidnapped and brainwashed, is wonderfully played. Trapped in an area surrounded by burly men, subjected to intensely bright, colourful lights and deafening, nonsensical noise (the film predicted the rise of the nightclub thirty years ahead of its time!), the brutality of the scene shines through, with Palmer first using his straps and then a nail to distract himself from the influence of Major Dalby. It’s very vicious and uncomfortable to watch, but it isn’t gratuitous, again striking a wonderful balance.
Of course, the Harry Palmer films are famously the ones that helped make Michael Caine, and it’s clear to see why here. He fits so effortlessly into the part, providing, in his usual style, a mixture of charm and roughness. He’s not Fleming’s elegantly flawless hero, nor Le Carré’s businessman; he’s not even Ludlum’s tightly coiled spring in Jason Bourne. He’s just a man, brighter and fitter than most, but still ultimately needing to do the big shop in the supermarket every week and pleased that an increase in salary means that he can afford a new grill.
This all leads to one of the most intriguing traits of Palmer in the film: his predilection for cookery. It’s not overplayed and has no real bearing on the plot (imagine if the final moments were not an agonising choice over which man to shoot, but were closer to an intense episode of The Great British Bake Off). Yet again it shows a roundedness to the character, and something of a weakness – his meeting with Ross in the supermarket and his choice of mushrooms reveal just the hint of snobbishness. And of course, it allows him to create an omelette with style, cracking open eggs with one hand and suavely mixing the ingredients to create the dish. You can argue that this shows a discipline that precedes what Palmer will endure at the end of the film, or that it shows a creative streak unrewarded in his workplace, but honestly, the main reason that it’s there is that it looks bloody cool.
Cool isn’t limited to the visuals, though. John Barry’s score should be hailed as a classic. It’s got a cool, relaxed feel, but given menace by the reverberation. It’s exactly the sort of music you’d expect to hear at a jazz club owned by a shark – groovy, yet sinister. Everything in the film gels together so well, so much so that it would be impossible to pick out any obvious weak links, and to be honest, you really wouldn’t want to. The film is a treat every time you watch it and easily one of Caine’s best.