‘The Ipcress File’ or — Depth of Field Agent?

I hadn’t seen ‘The Ipcress File’ (1965) in years so decided to revisit it last night to refresh my memory as all I could recall about it was Palmer’s brainwashing scene and that it was a grittier, grimy, less flashy version of James Bond. Ken Adam, Peter Hunt, Harry Saltzman and John Barry are all present from the Bond camp but dial back, restrain themselves immensely so their input becomes almost invisible in the dark, rain-soaked light of London. Except who hasn’t restrained himself is director Sidney J. Furie who throws every visual trick (“gimmick” would be too strong a word?) at the screen at a deceptively furious (pun intended) rate. This movie is way less drab than I remembered!

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) doesn’t make being a spy look particularly exciting. This could be why he’s such a good cook because it gives him something to do between all the paperwork. And there’s a lot of paperwork just now because Britain’s top scientists keep going “missing”. Some aspects of this “braindrain” are explicable, some are not. It is this second group Palmer is tasked with investigating.

And so we follow Harry Palmer as he collects leads for his Ipcress File whilst dodging shadowy figures not just from external powers but also from the C.I.A. and even, possibly, his own department. The more Palmer investigates and the closer he gets to the truth the more it seems this could all be a set up. It’s enough to Induce Psychoneuroses by Conditioned ReflEx under StresS in anyone!

‘The Ipcress File’ initially played out very much as I remembered being a low-key spy thriller with all the glamour deliberately stripped out. The colours are muted, the environments drab and the story a tad mundane (or so it starts off!). Even Hunt’s editing and Barry’s sparse score reflect a sense of contained control. So where’s the fun and excitement?

Firstly from the sardonic sense of wit because ‘The Ipcress File’ is a much funnier movie than I remembered. For example, there’s an excellent scene at a bandstand where Harry discovers his boss (a fantastic Nigel Green) has awful taste in music (this is a man who agrees that Mozart “transcribes remarkably well from the orchestra to the military band”). It’s a funny scene.

Likewise when he meets his other boss in the supermarket (his bosses seem to struggle with modern life yet keep insisting in ineptly paddling about in it) where they discuss dark secrets along with the nuances of shopping. Again, it’s a funny scene and this humour that seems to revolve around the changing nature of British life runs throughout.

The lighting might be gloomy but the script often sparkles.

Likewise with the camera work, framing and composition which far from being muted or restrained feel like the work of someone who has just seen ‘Citizen Kane’ (1941) for the first time and is hyperactively and ecstatically attempting to bring the same constant invention here. Nearly every shot plays with depth of field, Dutch tilts, fragmented space, obscured space, uniform colour fields, high angles, low angles and, well, just about everything else you could think of. It makes the Adam West ‘Batman’ TV show look visually sedate and restrained in comparison! It’s excessive but it’s also highly entertaining and keeps ‘The Ipcress File’ as a firmly cinematic experience.

And ‘The Ipcress File’ is an intensely cinematic film to its core. Why else do you think Palmer brings himself back to “life” by hitting his hand (palm…er?) against a film projector? It’s not just Harry doing the striking here but the movie hitting us over the head too, and just as bluntly.

‘The Ipcress File’ is an excellent movie that starts with a feel for the “real” but ends up in a place just as fantastical as Bond or any other escapist espionage flick. The film’s style and mood might be sober but mostly in terms of light and texture because the camera work is as sensational and crazy as it gets. And that’s part of the thrill.

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Colin Edwards

Colin Edwards

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.