The Ipcress File - 1965

Harry Palmer movies

Plot summary

Harry Palmer, a British intelligence officer, is assigned to Major Dalby, whose unit has been investigating the disappearances of several well-known UK scientists. Their most recent case involves Dr. Radcliffe, who's been kidnapped by a 'dealer' in agents known by the codename 'Blue-jay'. Harry is an unconventional spy: although a sergeant in the army, he is disrespectful of his superiors, yet also enjoys the finer things life has to offer - fine wines and Mozart feature.

Dalby is prepared to pay a reward to get him back. When they do so, they find that his mind has been wiped clean and he is totally is unable to function. Palmer also has an unfortunate encounter with a CIA agent whom he kills unintentionally. Now a target of the CIA as well as the kidnappers, Palmer thinks he has solved the mystery of what 'Ipcress' means and the identity of the person ultimately responsible for the kidnappings. But before he can act, he is captured, and wakes up in what appears to be an Albanian prison, where he gets to feel the end result of the IPCRESS process for himself - the 'Induction of Psycho-neuroses by Conditioned Reflex under strESS'.

Film notes

This film adaptation stars the then relatively unknown Michael Caine; arguably, it gave a massive boost to his career making him a household name.

The film was released in 1965 and produced by the James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, assisted by several prominent members of the Bond production family. In the book, the hero is nameless; this clearly did not work in film, so Caine's character was given the name Harry Palmer. Why? One theory: there is a scene in the book where the character is greeted by someone saying "Hello, Harry." which causes him to think, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been."

A more readily used reason is that it was simply a confection of Saltzman over lunch one day, Harry being the most working class name his lunch companion could think of, and Palmer the surname of a friend. Ambiguity in everything is the watchword. Like Deighton's original book, the film's plot is never clear cut and the exact relationship between the protagonists, and a degree of moral ambiguity, can make the film a little challenging to follow. Certain important elements are missing, such as the detour to the south Pacific atoll where nuclear bombs are tested.

Stylistically, this film is a tour de force which screams sixties design and sentiment. It has elements of film noir throughout, like the use of distorting lenses, unusual angles and high contrast photography, but all set in 1960s swinging London. The camera is often out of focus, or shoots through objects, such as a pair of cymbals, lampshades, even a keyhole. It’s gritty and realistic look of the film - thanks to production designer Ken Adam - that matches the shift in the sixties away from the ‘fifties more staid sensibilities.

The introduction of a male character who is equally happy in the supermarket and the kitchen as he is in the pub was revolutionary at the time. Palmer (as was Deighton) is a gourmet cook, knowing that this is a way to be more successful with women. Famously, in the scene where Palmer cooks an omelette for Jean, it is actually Len Deighton's hands which are in shot breaking the eggs one-handed into the bowl, not Caine's. There is also a reference to Deighton in the same scene; pinned to the kitchen wall is one of Deighton's 'cookstrips' published in The Observer.

Crucial to the film's atmosphere is John Barry's theme tune and incidental music, which are much more sparse than your typical bond film.

Upon the companion Deighton Dossier blog, this post includes pictures of a recently purchased, rare publicity pamphlet created by the studio to publicise the film, along with a short commentary by Len on one key aspect of the story - the brainwashing sequence.

The Ipcress File, opening sequence

Film notes

Director: Sidney J Furie
Harry Saltzman
Screenplay: Bill Canaway and James Doran
Starring: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer); Nigel Green (Major Dalby); Guy Doleman (Major H.L. Ross); Sue Lloyd (Jean Courtney); Gordon Jackson (Jock Carswell); Aubrey Richards (Radcliffe); Frank Gatliff (Blue-jay); Thomas Baptiste (Barney); Oliver Macgreevy (Housemartin)
Music: John Barry
Released/broadcast: 1965.