As “The Ipcress File” opens, British Intelligence Agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is in some nondescript London flat keeping some unnamed person across the street under surveillance. It’s not glamorous. He looks more like a properly groomed shut-in then a secret agent, which is how the film’s producers, Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, wanted it. They were the team responsible for the James Bond franchise that had only recently achieved liftoff, and so Mr. Saltzman and Mr. Broccoli sought Len Deighton’s novel to make “The Ipcress File” as antithesis to the idealized exploits of Agent 007. They employed director Sidney J. Furie to craft a spy caper less sexy than tedious, comprised not of exotic locales and charming bad guys and beautiful ladies but dreary London locales and interchangeable stuffy British intel agents.
This was Michael Caine’s first starring role and it’s fairly impressive how un-determined he is to make it star-making. Indeed, if James Bond’s omnipresent grin is playful, the omnipresent grin of Harry Palmer is mischievous, occasionally even lurid, like a brief moment where he checks out his female co-worker. TCM indicates that Christopher Plummer was the original choice for the role, which I find ironic because throughout “The Ipcress File” I kept thinking of Plummer as a bank robbing psychopath in “The Silent Partner.” That’s not to say that Caine’s Palmer is a psychopath because he’s not; but the imperious tone they both project is eerily similar. The character of Palmer, after all, is only here on account of orders, a checkered past, and Caine plays straight to that idea, evoking a cocky indifference to all this administrative intelligence humdrum. And oh, is there a lot of humdrum.
Palmer gets transferred to a civil intelligence unit under the command of Dalby (Nigel Green), a smarmy bureaucrat. If everyone else in the unit is used to his obnoxious officiousness, Palmer, the fussy raconteur, is not. He does things his own way, as he must, which gets into him escalating amounts of trouble, with Dalby and pretty much everyone else, as he finds himself waist-deep in determining who has been draining the brains of several highly intelligent, highly important English doctors. This brain drain concept, however, subtly emerges as the same condition of all the agents in Dalby’s charge, transformed into mindless order-following drones on account of filing so many secret agent TPS Reports.
But don’t let all this talk of reconnoitering ennui fool you into thinking its some formally bland enterprise. It’s quite the contrary as Furie does up “The Ipcress File” with all kinds of photographic chicanery, so much that I’m dying to see its shot list because I can’t imagine the plethora of shot descriptions that Furie cooked up with his cinematographer Otto Heller. These descriptions would say things like: “From behind Harry Palmer” and “From behind an easy chair” and “From behind a plush couch” and “From behind a wooden pew” and “From behind a lampshade” and “From behind a tape recording reel”. It seems as if nearly every single shot in this movie is from behind something, or off to the side of something. There are many tilted camera angles, a la “The Third Man”, and often the camera is set far below or high above its character, but usually it is stationed behind something, evoking bugs or surveillance cameras or whatever other technical doo-hickeys well above my pay grade that intelligence organizations employ to keep watch. Everyone here is being watched, like Big Brother, and in his own way, Harry Palmer emerges as the UK’s answer to Winston Smith.
Because the film is 50 years old, we will throw caution to the wind and refrain from issuing a persnickety spoiler alert in advising that British Intelligence is – egads – brainwashing its own, attempting to transform them all into variations of Reggie Jackson in “The Naked Gun.” Palmer determines the ruse,
yet becomes ensnared it anyway, literally fighting back against the brainwashing, although he’s figuratively fighting back against it every step of the way with his deadpan insolence, winning on both counts, a hero if there was over one. This is a one spy movie that has less to do with figuring out Who Did It than Hacking Through Red Tape.