Spy 100, #13: The Ipcress File

Setting the tone for the series, The Ipcress File (1965) introduces Michael Caine as the cheeky, insubordinate Harry Palmer, the genre’s unglamorous anti-Bond. Like the other films in the trilogy, it’s an oddball production with an intriguing plot, a dark gritty look, a restrained pace, and elements of comic book camp that undercut the realism.

As the film opens, Palmer gets promoted to a new division. That’s the good news; the bad news is he’s replacing a man who was shot and killed during the abduction of an important scientist. Palmer’s old boss Ross (Guy Doleman) has a theory that the British have been targeted by the enemy for “brain drain” – scientists are disappearing, relocating, or defecting. He assigns Palmer’s new boss Dalby (Nigel Green) to locate the missing scientist. In a slightly rash and scattershot matter, Palmer leaps into this new task, and while his unorthodox methods make more headway than his collegues, they also land him in hot water when the bodies start to fall.

Quirkily directed by Sidney J. Furie, The Ipcress File splashes noir techniques all over its spy trappings. The cockeyed angles and harsh lights give its London setting a bleak look, and the film doesn’t shy away from the job’s mundane aspects: meetings and patience and paperwork. Yes, especially in light of its era, this is no glamorous Hollywood spy film. Caine is likably unlikable as the myopic, skirt-chasing troublemaker in the lead, stumbling clumsily but resourcefully into his new job and through the nifty maze of the plot. In many ways, I can see why this is considered a genre classic.

But there were obstacles to my enjoyment. With the exception of a cheerful Gordon Jackson as Palmer’s co-worker Carswell, the cast has a subdued, stony air, which suits the underworld storyline but drains the action of energy. At the heart of the mystery is a cartoonish MacGuffin, and I occasionally grew impatient with the measured pace. Furie’s direction creates an unforgettable look, but also draws undue attention to itself, and favors cool shots at the expense of storytelling. In the end, I still enjoyed it, but I think I was expecting to like it a lot more than I did.

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