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The Ipcress File (1965)
Director: Sidney J. Furie

review by Christopher Geary

Much closer in its visual and dramatic style to John le Carre's George Smiley than Ian Fleming's James Bond, this British spy movie is based on a novel by Len Deighton, and The Ipcress File was the first in a trilogy of movies starring Michael Caine as the bespectacled Harry Palmer. The antithesis of a suave 007, Palmer is a working class hero, a troublesome sergeant performing surveillance duties for the MoD until he is promoted to an investigative role in a counter-intelligence section. Palmer shops in supermarkets and cooks for his lady friend, and he's just so ordinary that he quietly fulfils the supposed criteria for a successful spy: nobody outside of his small circle of colleagues would be likely to suspect him of being a government agent.

"You will forget your name."

Centred on a brain-washing machine that causes amnesia, the main plot reeks of Cold War paranoia, as maverick insubordinate 'trickster' Palmer cannot trust his superiors like Dalby (the great stalwart Nigel Green), and Ross (Guy Doleman), because one - or perhaps even of both - of them might be a double-agent. Gordon Jackson appears as a doomed agent named 'Jock' Carswell, a full decade before he was leader of the action heroes in TV series The Professionals. Palmer unwittingly shoots a CIA agent and is framed for killing another CIA spy, and then he is kidnapped, and undergoes the mysterious Ipcress processing, in a weird sequence of psychological torture that seems unusually surreal, if compared to other brain-washing techniques, as depicted in movies of that era such as Michael Anderson's 1984 (1956), John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), or Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View (1974).

Unlike the broadly cosmopolitan Bond movies, such wholly British social conventions as bowler hats and rolled umbrellas are much in evidence here, as is the elitist, falsely patriotic, fascination with the pomp and ceremony produced by some British military bands. The bitter irony is that stiff upper lips might easily mask traitorous activity. All of that nostalgic stuff aside, this Rank production does share 007's regular composer, John Barry, who contributes a score of sombre downbeat tones, adding much needed atmosphere to this movie's somewhat relaxed pace and slickly mechanical action that Canadian-born director Sidney J. Furie marshals intuitively into a coherent whole. It is a groundbreaking character study, and one that greatly expanded the concerns and subculture of spy movies, by embracing social realism, while also delving into sweaty human fears of deception and mistrust long fostered in literary works but rarely seen in the cinema.

The Ipcress File was followed promptly by Guy Hamilton's Funeral In Berlin (1966), and Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain (1967), and the characteristic adventures of Caine's retired Palmer were later extended in a couple of TV movies, Bullet To Beijing (1995), and Midnight In Saint Petersburg (1996). By then, however, Caine's stardom had faded significantly and his international career as a dramatic actor was not fully revived from the pits of genre comedy and Hollywood farce until 2005, when he took on the role of Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred, for Christopher Nolan's trilogy of Batman pictures.

Along with the TV series Danger Man (1960-1, 1964-7) the darkly convoluted themes of Caine's Palmer movies fed into a spy-fi cross-genre remix that quickly produced its greatest mass-media expression of narrative complexity, political commentary, moral integrity, and witty charm, in Patrick McGoohan's classic The Prisoner (1967-8). The brain-machine of The Ipcress File also influenced children's TV, in the form of Gerry Anderson's puppet-show Joe 90 (1968-9).

This blu-ray release by Network is a superbly re-mastered effort with crisp sound and first-class image quality. Extras: an exclusive interview with Caine, and another with designer Ken Adam; a commentary track with director Furie, and editor Peter Hunt; the documentary Candid Caine (1969), trailers and a stills gallery.

The Ipcress File

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