During the 1960s, the James Bond films became a pop culture phenomenon, so of course, the rest of the decade would be flooded with spy flicks which were copycats and cheap ripoffs. In fact, if a spy movie truly wanted to stand out during the sixties, its best strategy was to become the polar opposite of a Bond film and showcase the world of espionage in a rather downbeat and unglamorous fashion. A spy film which fit that criteria came out in theatres in between the releases of Goldfinger and Thunderball, and ironically enough, it would be produced by Harry Saltzman, one of the co-producers of the Bond franchise. The Iprcess File was a screen adaptation of a novel by Len Deighton, an espionage story told in the first person by a nameless working class British spy. By the time the film came out, Deighton had already written two more spy novels featuring the same character and never revealed his name. It was decided that this character would need a name in the film version, so when Michael Caine was cast in the role, both he and Harry Saltzman tried to brainstorm a boring first name and came up with “Harry”. Caine then remembered a boring classmate of his named “Palmer” and decided to make that the character’s surname. Thus the character of “Harry Palmer” was born, a secret agent who may not be as suave and debonair as James Bond, but makes for a very intriguing protagonist in a very unique spy story.
The opening credits sequence of The Ipcress File immediately establishes that Harry Palmer is the antithesis of James Bond. He’s an ordinary, working class spy who will not be going on exciting secret missions to exotic locales. Palmer is shown waking up inside a typical London flat and going through his daily morning routine of making breakfast and preparing for an uneventful day at work.
It’s revealed that Palmer is actually a former army sergeant who went to the brig for black-marketeering and agreed to join the secret services in order to work off his sentence. He is currently working for the Ministry of Defence, but is stuck doing boring clerical office work under Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). After the kidnapping of a top British scientist, Palmer is assigned to investigate the case and is transferred to a secret bureau run by Major Dalby (Nigel Green). A lot of top British scientists have mysteriously disappeared for awhile before suddenly resurfacing. However, the scientists’ minds have been altered so much that they are no longer able to function properly, effectively ending their careers. Palmer eventually discovers that a spy codenamed “Bluejay” (Frank Gatliff) is masterminding this plot, which is known as “Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex Under Stress”, a.k.a. the “IPCRESS File”. To demonstrate that this isn’t going to be a spy film which relies on high-tech gadgetry, Palmer tracks down Bluejay by searching through records of his parking tickets.
Somewhat inevitably, Palmer himself is kidnapped by Bluejay and subject to some surreal mind control experiments. Palmer comes to realize that he was not selected for this assignment because of his skills, but because he was expendable and could be used as bait to draw the perpetrators out into the open. In addition to Harry Saltzman, many of the other contributors on The Ipcress File were known for their frequent work on the Bond films, including editor Peter Hunt, composer John Barry and production designer Ken Adam. This makes The Ipcress File a unique viewing experience as it often has the look and feel of a Bond film even though it was intended to be the polar opposite of one. As I stated earlier, this story takes place in a very drab, unglamorous world, and is likely a much more authentic depiction of the day-to-day existence of a real-life spy. This is a world where the secret agent protagonist is seen discussing pay raises and shopping in supermarkets. There isn’t a lot of action to be found in The Iprcess File and when it occurs, it’s not presented in a stylized or sensational fashion. In fact, when director Sidney J. Furie was ordered by Saltzman to add a fight scene into the story, he decided to shoot it at a distance from the inside of a phone box.
If this analysis makes The Ipcress File sound like a boring movie, I can assure you that it is not. In many ways, Harry Palmer is a much more identifiable character than James Bond since he is so flawed and ordinary. However, he is still likable and sympathetic because he is obviously attempting to do the best he can with his limited skills. This was still relatively early in Michael Caine’s career, but Harry Palmer was one of the roles which helped put him on the map. Interestingly enough, Palmer is actually the first action hero in film history to wear glasses. Caine came up with the idea of wearing glasses for the role because it would make it easier to distinguish his portrayal of Palmer from his other roles, but the spectacles just seem to add so much to the character. Caine never attempts to make Palmer into a larger-than-life figure and is not shy about showcasing his vulnerability. Palmer’s vulnerability shines through during the film’s surreal final act where he is forced to undergo mind control, and these scenes are just as harrowing as the famous brainwashing sequences in The Manchurian Candidate. The Ipcress File wound up capturing the BAFTA Award for Best British Film and two sequels, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, immediately followed. In the 1990s, Caine would actually reprise the role of Harry Palmer in two made-for-television films, Bullet in Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. However, The Iprcess File is somewhat forgotten today and the character of Harry Palmer has never been that well-known outside of Britain. However, The Iprcess File is still a very underrated spy thriller and as a unique alternative to the James Bond series, it’s definitely worth a look.