Review: The Ipcress File (1965)
Created by novelist Len Deighton and never named in the novel that inspired this film adaptation, Harry Palmer comes to life as a cockney everyman, a secret agent who spends just as much time filling out paperwork at an office desk as he does on stakeouts and surveillance. It's a deliberate choice, and one that lends far more realism to the world of espionage than the high-speed thrills of 007. In the hands of Michael Caine, who would play the character three times in as many years, Harry Palmer becomes a darker hero, and one that's far less glamorous.
There was a movement of increased realism in British culture during the latter half of the mid-sixties, with grit and practicality supplementing the big screen escapism of the secret agent cycle. The Ipcress File was among those films leading the charge. The balance between tedium and danger is hard to describe, but the film pulls it off well. As the film unfolds, the noose around Harry Palmer begins to tighten, and the film's gritty realism and lack of fantastical elements create far more tension than any other contemporary spy movie. When Goldfinger tells Bond "I expect you to die," we don't really think Connery is going to oblige. But Harry Palmer? He just might.
Michael Caine is fantastic in the role. His Palmer is insolent toward authority, sarcastic, and never far from a joke, yet he's also incredibly devoted to his job and good at what he does. The other performances in the film are equally impressive, from a slightly-winking turn from Nigel Green (whom Caine had acted with in 1964's Zulu) as Major Dalby, to Guy Doleman (who would star in Thunderball the same year as this film) as the dry Colonel Ross. There's a distinct air of British stoicism running underneath the story at all points, lending a sort of practical determination, especially when things start to escalate. "Keep Calm and Carry On Spying."
The score by John Barry feels like a distant ripple of his Bond work, and somehow sounds darker and more sophisticated than his contributions to the world of that other famous secret agent. Again, the bombastic trends of the 007 franchise give way to a more subtle, exotic soundtrack. The guitar sounds are incredibly unique, subdued, but evocative of danger, mystery, and perhaps even foreign lands. No coincidence that Barry's score for The Ipcress File would serve as a major influence on the trip-hop scene of the 1990s, with multiple English and European music acts drawing from Barry's motifs and instrumentation from this film. For further evidence of this trend in practice, listen to the album Formica Blues from the group Mono.
One does not have to look far to see the influence of The Ipcress File on the spy movie genre. It's in everything from The Bourne Identity to The Kingsmen and, in a strange case of the tail wagging the dog, it's even in the Bond franchise, especially the Daniel Craig era. It also appears to have been an influence on the 1966 U.S. television series Mission: Impossible, and on British television shows like Callan. For a movie that presents such a minimalist and even mundane approach to the world of espionage, The Ipcress File is awfully hard to forget.