Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Trailer Tuesday: THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)

One of my favorite films.

Director: Sidney J. Furie (BOYS IN COMPANY C)
Writers: James Doran, Bill Canaway.
Starring: Michael Caine, Sue Lloyd, Guy Doleman, Nigel Green.
Produced by: Harry Saltzman.
Cinematographer: Otto Heller (BAFTA (British Oscars) nominee for ALFIE, winner for this film... and the lighting is amazing.)
Music by: John Barry (the James Bond movies) - and it’s a great score!

Sort of the “anti-Bond”, but made by the producers of the Connery films. Harry Palmer is The Spy Who Does Paperwork in this predecessor to THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. There is a form for everything - a form to get a gun, a form to fill out if you fire the gun... and if you manage to hit someone? No end to the amount of paperwork! This is the *government* - it’s all about filling out forms! Forms for stake outs, forms to requisition a car, forms for *not* discovering any information. Harry hates paperwork, but he’s a genius at sifting through it for clues - to find an enemy agent with no known address, he checks for parking tickets... because like Turner in CONDOR, Harry Palmer is brains rather than brawn. The other anti-Bond element here is that Harry is not great at fighting and when he shoots a gun he tends to screw up.

Oh, and this is a paranoid thriller, which we will talk about later.

There are so many great things about this film that I will never get to all of them, but you have young Michael Caine in his first starring role and amazing camera work by Otto Heller and a great John Barry score and a clever script and... well, let’s start at the beginning.


The film opens with what you would call a “teaser” in television. A car driving down the streets of London with two men in the backseat: one is reading “New Scientist Magazine” and the other keeps looking behind the car and ahead of the car and generally building up the audience’s paranoia that something is going to happen. The car makes it to a train station where the paranoid man, Agent Taylor (Charles Rea), accompanies the scientist Radcliff (Aubrey Richards) to the train and his train compartment. A porter follows with the luggage. In the train station Agent Taylor is on high alert, looking for danger.

Once Radcliff is secure in his compartment, Agent Taylor goes back to the car... where he spots Radlciff’s camera, grabs it, and races to the train. When he opens the train compartment door, the man reading “New Scientist Magazine” lowers the magazine from his face, exposing that he is *not* Radcliff. What? This is a great reveal, because the imposter is wearing the same clothes and same hat as Radcliff. If you are going to show that the scientist has been switched, you want to find a way to do it that has maximum impact. We think the man reading “New Scientist Magazine” in the train compartment is Radcliff right up until the moment his face is revealed.

Next shot is the train leaving the station and the camera turns slowly to reveal Agent Taylor dead on the side of the tracks.

Okay, that’s a great way to begin a movie!


Now that we have our problem, we need to introduce our protagonist, and we get a swell scene behind the titles: Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) wakes up in the morning and prepares for a day of work. It is a simple scene which tells us EVERYTHING we need to know about this character. He has to find his glasses before he can see the alarm clock. Everything is a blur! He grinds his own gourmet coffee beans, and uses a complicated coffee maker (kind of an in-film advert, since one of the producers owned the company that made the gourmet coffee making machine). Harry looks out his flat window while drinking his coffee. Later, he finds a woman's necklace in his bed... while searching for his misplaced gun. There’s a bit of a zoom shot to the gun - and guns get close ups in this film, which is unusual. And then Harry leaves his apartment, late for work. One of the reason why I think this is a predecessor for CONDOR is that Harry is an ordinary guy in a job that starts out boring in the story (Harry is doing stake out duty on someone) and then suddenly becomes dangerous. Can he handle that? He’s not just the spy who does paperwork, he’s an *underdog* spy!

Introduction To Harry:

The interesting thing about the Deighton novels are that they are told first person and we never learn the character’s name... he is a spy and has a dozen aliases. An element of the novels is the loss of identity - when you use so many different names, who are you really? And the film does a great job of illustrating this through story and situations. Never knowing the name worked on the page, but they needed something to call him on screen, so - legend has it - the producer asked Caine for the most boring first name he could imagine, and Caine responded “Harry” to Harry Saltzman. And he didn’t get fired!

IPCRESS makes the job of spying mundane: a bunch of stakes outs and surveillance jobs followed by paperwork, so that when it explodes with action it seems much bigger due to the contrast. Caine plays Harry as a problem child who probably needed a good spanking many years ago, but now knows exactly how far he can push authority before it pushes back.

His boss, Colonel Ross (Doleman), hates him and has him transferred to Major Dalby’s department where he has to fill out stacks of paperwork as they try to find the kidnapped scientist who has been put up for auction by an espionage agent for hire code-name, BlueJay (Frank Gatliff) an Albanian who sells secrets... and people. Dalby (Nigel Green) “doesn’t have the sense of humor that Ross has” (which was none at all) and cracks the whip on Harry again and again. Harry finds a friend in team member Carswell (Gordon Jackson) and a love interest in team member Jean (Lloyd) - who may be a spy for Ross’s department... but she thinks that Harry is a spy for Ross’s department. Neither trusts each other - though they sleep together. That’s the kind of paranoid movie this is - the spies are spying on other spies!


The film has all kinds of great dialogue, including this exchange when Harry shows up for his first day of work at Dalby’s department:

Harry: “The fellow whose job I'm taking, will he show me the ropes?”
Dalby: “Maybe - if you're in touch with the spirit world.”
Harry: “I beg your pardon?”
Dalby: “He was shot this morning.”

Great punchline! Not funny (well, maybe in a sick way), but adds impact to the end of the dialogue exchange. You always want to put the stinger in the tail.

In the commentary, director Sidney J. Furie says that the script was awful and they were rewriting it on the set... I always discount when a director says this, because it’s usually a power grab. The plotting and dialogue in the film is so well done that it’s difficult to believe Furie - even though he’s one of my favorite directors. There’s a great example of a “payback line” - when Harry goes to Ross’s office, he leaves the door open and Ross says, “Close the door.” When Harry goes to Dalby’s office he leaves the door open and Dalby says, “Shut the door”. Then at the end of the movie, Harry has taken control and knows that either Ross or Dalby is a traitor, and invites them to the villain’s warehouse. When Dalby enters, Harry tells him to “Shut the door.” Playing back to the authority figures now that he is in control. So many great pieces of dialogue in this film, “A word in your shell-like ear”.

When he comes home to find Jean searching his flat (is she working for Ross or Dalby?) he asks if she has finished searching and she says “Yes.” “Then you know where the whisky is?” “Yes.” “Fix us both one, will you?” And this begins a romance with absolutely no trust at all. By the way, Jean has a nice little character moment where she talks about her spy husband who was murdered... and how Dalby gave her a job so that she could support herself. It’s emotional... and expositional. We *think* we know that her loyalties are with Dalby. But are they?

In the middle of this mistrust, she asks Harry: “Do you always wear your glasses?” “Yes... except in bed.” And then she takes off his glasses and kisses him.

Plus we have great story related visual elements that had to be in the screenplay - a CIA Agent wears glasses with broken frames, taped together with bright white tape. Another CIA Agent smokes a pipe. Characters have what I call “instant identifiers” in the Action Screenwriting book - a prop or piece of costume that allows the audience to recognize and differentiate characters. The two CIA Agents are easy to tell apart. The other Agents on Dalby’s team each have a prop or costume element that helps us tell them apart. These are screenplay related things, not something you figure out on the set at the last minute. Those taped together glasses end up a clue used later in the story.

So much of the dialogue and plotting are story related, and the film was obviously shot out of sequence (even though Furie says otherwise) that it’s impossible to believe that this script wasn’t at least most of the way there when they began shooting. Hey, maybe one of the two writers was hired to punch up the dialogue during production, but this film has a complex plot where characters are often double agents, lying, duplicitous... and yet, when you rewatch the film you can see the “tells” in their earlier scenes. It’s based on a book, dammit! The story was always there.


But director, Sidney J. Furie, and DP Otto Heller come up with the most inventive angles and shots I’ve ever seen - which is one of the reasons why this is one of my favorite movies. Almost every single shot has something in soft focus in the foreground or is “canted” or “dutch” - at a strange angle. What’s interesting is how much fuzzy foreground obscures the shots - there are times when 75% of the screen is someone’s out of focus shoulder or something in the way of the shot. This may sound as if it would be irritating, but it is actually fascinating. You feel as if you are watching the story unfold looking over that shoulder or peeking through that cell door. Just amazing original shots. The lighting is also amazing - Heller paints with shadows, here. One of my favorite shots is early in the film when Ross climbs a spiral staircase to meet with Dalby, there must be a dozen different kinds of shadows in that shot! All with a real light source. There are scenes in darkness that look really really dark, except due to classic lighting techniques you can see what is happening. This seems to be a lost art, today.

Harry’s parking ticket clue leads him to the Science Library where he discovers BlueJay and his henchman HouseMartin, and when he tries to follow them? There is a whole fight scene shot through the glass of one of those red British phone booth - mullion coming between Harry and this huge bodyguard - and every other interesting combination of foreground and background is used to make the fight scene really interesting. Furie re-imagines action scenes as chess matches or tennis games and stages them in unusual ways throughout the film.

I don’t think there is a single “flat” shot in the entire film, and nothing that looks like TV “coverage”. The above mentioned shot through the cell door is amazing, because cell door has a crossed grille that creates diamond like openings... and the scene plays out with characters moving from one diamond to another - the chess match idea.

One of the great visual clues is a piece of paper where BlueJay has written his phone number, but it’s a fake disconnected number. Flip the paper over and it’s a flier for a military band concert. Harry and Dalby meet with BlueJay to make a deal for missing scientist Radcliff... and much of the scene is shot between the cymbals!

Because Harry wears glasses, the element of sight is used in both action scenes (you know he means business when he carefully folds up his glasses and puts them in his pocket) and other scenes (Harry with glasses off looks over a blurry crowd of scientists after Radcliff is returned and sees a person who does not belong) - the glasses become part of the way the story is told. Though this may be vaguely racist today, the scientists scene has an audience of white scientists in white labcoats and an African American CIA Agent in a suit. Though the image on screen is a blur, we can see that one of these people is not a scientist - and when Harry puts his glasses on, he goes after the Agent... who tells him, “I’m going to tail you until I know you are clean... and if you are not clean... I’m going to kill you.”

Which leads to the African American CIA Agent being found dead in Harry’s apartment. He flips the light switch, and there the body!

Other great visual elements include one of the greatest twist-reveals ever put on film, a shot through the keyhole of Harry’s flat of an intruder with a gun, a Polanskiesque shot where a door is opened to hide one character so that we focus on the other, the camera mounted on an armored car that batters down a door - we see it all POV, a Busby Berkeleyesque choreographed prisoner for money exchange in an underground parking garage with a deadly twist, the whole IPCRESS brain washing sequence - which includes an amazing Christ-symbolism bit where Harry jams a rusty nail into his palm to try to avoid the brainwashing, a multi-level following scene in a building, and an amazing ending where a brainwashed Harry must decide who to kill and who not to kill... which we will look at in a moment.


The other way that this story is like THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR is that it has a faction inside the government’s espionage agency working against the government. We have no idea who can be trusted... and you can not trust the government itself.

Ross keeps trying to get Harry to hand over the file on their investigation, code named “Ipcress” because that word was written on a piece of audio tape found in the abandoned warehouse that they smashed into because they think BlueJay was using it for some mysterious reason. That scene in the abandoned warehouse (“Disused factory” a character calls it) is great for many reasons. Harry calls in the raid - with a British version of a SWAT Team - using “CC1 authority” that he doesn’t have. Dalby shows up before the raid... and Harry is in trouble. But Dalby tells the SWAT Team to go ahead, and they ram the door and storm the warehouse... which is empty except for a huge metal cross. Harry hits the metal cross and it makes a unique noise... which will be used as a sound cue to remind us when we see the same metal cross later. Lots of awesome sound design in this film! When the SWAT Team leader complains that their time has been wasted on an empty warehouse, Dalby covers for Harry - showing that despite all of the conflict between the two men, they are on the same side. Harry does a thorough search even though the warehouse was empty - and finds an old wood burning stove... still warm. Inside it: that audio tape with “Ipcress” written on it. Dalby offers to buy Harry and Carswell lunch.

When they play the bit of audio tape, all they get are strange noises - what do they mean? To add to the paranoia, there’s that CIA Agent with the broken glasses who is spying on Harry, and someone in one of the departments may actually be working for BlueJay. Jean who may be working for Ross. Ross who wants Harry to mictofilm the Ipcress File, and everyone else who may be working for the good guys or the bad guys... or may just be unaware of larger things going on. In a scene where Harry and Carswell go to interrogate a prisoner picked up by the police, Harry tells the police Desk Sargent, “Palmer.” The Desk Sargent replies, “Oh, Mr. Palmer’s just left, sir, with another gentleman. He said he’s be back soon, would you like to wait? Everything is under control, sir.” Harry flips open his ID, “I’m Palmer.” And their witness is dead in his cell - murdered by whoever had fake ID saying he was Palmer. You can’t trust *anyone* in this film!

Harry uncovers a plot to kidnap British scientists, brainwash them until they spill all of their secrets, then wipe their memories clean so that they are unable to function. 16 British Scientists have had their brain washed, 17 when you add in Radcliff. The cool thing about this 60s film is that it uses all of the real brainwashing devices from the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program, which wasn’t made public until the 70s. How they knew about these things in this film, I do not know. Were there CIA leaks that ended up in (novelist) Len Deighton’s hands?

SPOILER: There’s a great scene where Carswell thinks he knows what “Ipcress” means and shows Harry a book. He asks to borrow Harry’s car to check on something. Harry puts the book and the Ipcress File in his desk and locks it. And then we see Carswell driving, stopping at a stop light... and when the light turns green the car doesn’t move. The cars behind it honk their horns. The car still doesn’t move. Then we get a shot of the front window... with a bullet hole from a rooftop sniper, and Carswell dead behind the wheel! There are rooftop snipers out there, just waiting for Harry!

This leads to a great emotional scene where Harry realizes that he is partially responsible for Carswell’s death, and there is some survivor’s guilt. He finds a place to be alone and grieve... and then Jean finds him and holds his hand. Great little scene! When he goes back to the office - his locked drawer has been pried open and the book and Ipcress file are gone. This is in a British secret service office! How can someone get passed the security to do that?

Harry tells Jean he’s going to hide somewhere...


Which leads to one of my favorite bits in the film where BlueJay kidnaps Harry... and he wakes up in a crappy cell in some old industrial building, and BlueJay tells him that it would be pointless to try to escape, because he's in Albania. How can he get help if he does not speak Albanian? Where would he run to? He has no passport, no identification. Even if he escaped, he's still trapped in this foreign land. The signs are in Albanian, the prison guards wear Albanian military uniforms, and everyone speaks Albanian. Harry is screwed.

The brainwashing scene is right out of MK-ULRA program - they begin with disorientation by feeding him at strange hours and keeping the same exact lighting in his cell so that he has no idea how many days have passed. He is often starved, because the food is too hot to eat and taken away if he doesn’t eat it. Harry finds a rusty nail that he uses to mark the “days” (period between meals being offered) on the prison walls - which are filled with th markings of other prisoners counting the days... some maybe hundreds of years old.

Then they proceed to brainwash him using the IPCRESS method... assaulting him with visuals and sounds (that Ipcress noise) that drive him crazy and lower all resistence. A form of sensory deprivation. Oh, and the suspended cube they wheel him into (strapped to a wheel chair) is suspended by a metal cross like the one from the warehouse... "Listen to me. Listen to me. You will forget the IPCRESS file, you will forget your name..." Harry jams that rusty nail into his palm, "My name is Harry Palmer. My name is Harry Palmer." But he loses the nail... and the brainwashing begins to work.

That's when Harry decides to escape... running out of the old industrial building where all of the signs are in Albanian, to... Downtown London! He was never taken to Albania! The whole thing was a ruse to make him not try to escape! This is one of dozens of little story touches that make IPCRESS FILE a really cool movie.


And now we come to an amazing twist that reveals who broke into his desk to steal the Ipcress File and book and who is the secret enemy agent working for BlueJay. Harry believes that either Ross or Dalby is the main enemy agent, and calls both to the “Albanian prison”, where he disarms both and has them stand under a light - so that we have a spotlight on our two suspects. Then he has them plead their case on why they are not the traitor. But is Harry brainwashed? Will he shoot the actual traitor, or has he been hypnotized to shoot the innocent man and let the real traitor walk free... and continue to work his way up the command of the British Secret Service?

I love movies where intelligent guys get sent into the field, where they are clueless, and must fight to survive. Harry gets in so much trouble, and the story is so clever and twisted and has so many double and triple crosses that I can watch it again and again... oh, and it’s visually really really cool.

A great clever screenplay coupled with great inventive direction and Michael Caine at the top of his game surrounded by a bunch of great British actors. Oh, and the musical score is one of John Barry’s best! They made two sequels in the 60s and a couple in the 90s (with an old Michael Caine) but the first one is the best. Check it out!

- Bill

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