The Ipcress File

Sorry to begin on such an obvious note, but it’s impossible to view The Ipcress File without considering James Bond. An attempt to portray a more ordinary spy figure, it’s tempting to read the film as a symbiosis of producer Harry Salzman’s two biggest successes to date. On the one hand he’d been involved in the box office extravaganzas of the Bond movies, on the other there was his association with Woodfall Films and the critical acclaim which came with likes of Look Back in Anger and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Of course, the two don’t mesh that easily and so it’s hardly surprising to discover that the Bond side of the equation gains the upper hand. Indeed, we have music by John Barry, production design by Ken Adam, and future Bond director Peter Hunt installed as editor. (Meanwhile, The Ipcress File’s follow-up, Funeral in Berlin, would be directed by another, Guy Hamilton, which, in Michael Caine’s words, was the equivalent of “being directed by James Bond”.)

Interestingly, the presence of these figures allows The Ipcress File to become a kind of parody from within. Despite the fact that Caine was co-opted for Mike Myers’ Austin Powers in Goldmember primarily for his portrayal of Harry Palmer, this isn’t a film which seems ripe for send-up. It lacks the grandiosity and sheer obviousness of the seventies Bond ventures, the Matt Helm flicks or James Coburn’s Flint pictures. Rather it’s a much slyer and ultimately far wittier film which chooses to deconstruct the popular cinematic spy as typified by these efforts and reconfigure him as an ordinary working class fella. Thus we have the spectacles and the cockney accent, both hitherto largely confined to supporting players.

Retrospectively Caine may not seem the most obvious candidate for embodying this “ordinary” persona; he’s since become too much of a star having appeared alongside everyone from Jaws to the Muppets. Yet he gives a fine performance here and, importantly, it’s one that works. He captures the sarcasm, the easy-going nature and the almost louche attitude (“Don’t slouch like a pregnant camel”) – plus he convinces when shopping in a supermarket. Of course, the script has to play a part in this and indeed it does: the credit sequence shows us Palmer making coffee before it shows us his gun, and we also find him negotiating a pay rise, something we could never imagine Bond doing.

This everyday façade to the spy game continues throughout. Form L101 gains prominence as a symbol of the paperwork behind all that espionage business, and then there’s the reliable support from the likes of Gordon Jackson and Nigel Green. Indeed, Jackson has always been the perfect embodiment of the everyman, whether it be in war movies or Ealing comedies, whilst Green strikes a perfect balance with his turn as Nayland Smith in the contemporaneous Face of Fu Manchu potboiler. There he was almost Holmesian in his demeanour and a dab hand at hand-to-hand combat when needed, here he has the bruskness of a school master and an attention to bureaucracy.

The key thing is that all of this is most assuredly not sexy, and herein lies my only caveat. As directed we find brash Canadian Sidney J. Furie (even the name sounds unnecessarily intense), oddly enough working in-between big screen vehicles for Cliff Richard and Marlon Brando. For some reason he’s decided that every camera angle, wherever possible, should be ridiculously tricksy. Thus he shoots through the panes of glass in a telephone booth, the gap at the top of a parking meter, and so on and so on. He could conceivably believe that this all adds up to some kind of fly-on-the-wall technique – after all, only a fly could gain access to some of the camera placements – yet it all seems so terribly wrong when put alongside everything else on display. Remember that The Ipcress File is not a film of tuxedos and wetsuits, and certainly not one of tuxedoes under wetsuits.

Perhaps he was hoping that such a stylised approach would allow the script to make better sense, though this too would be a mistake. The plotting is nothing more than an elaborate MacGuffin; the fun comes from the character of Palmer and his reactions to the events around him, not, as the pre-credit sequence has it, “Where’s Dr. Radcliffe?”. In fact, with its talk of a “proto-proton scattering device” and much speaking in codes, I defy anybody to take this part of the film seriously. Of course, it nonetheless produces some terrific set pieces (and it’s great to see Ken Adam utilised in a less obvious manner), but still we get the impression that Furie has come along and scribbled all over it.

The Disc

Seemingly, if you have a classic British film in need of re-releasing, then Network are the people to go for. Previously “treated” to a bare-bones, pan-and-scan release as part of Carlton ‘The Silver Collection’, The Ipcress File now finally arrives in the UK in its original 2.35:1 Techniscope ratio, digitally remastered and part of an extras-packed two-disc release.

To begin with the presentation, it is here where we find the only complaint. The soundtrack, preserving the original mono, is utterly superb and without a single flaw, yet visually there are problems. Though anamorphic and taken from a spotless print, the film doesn’t always look quite as good as it could. There’s an excess of grain throughout which prompts intermittent, but highly conspicuous artefacting, plus the red side of the palette comes across as a little too strong. Of course, it all remains watchable, though those expecting something on a par with Network’s handling of Black Narcissus are likely to come away a little disappointed.

As well as the film itself, the first disc also holds the original theatrical trailer and a commentary track by Furie and editor Peter Hunt. Though they dry up a little on occasion, the pair make for a fine, gossipy listen. We get discussion of Furie’s infamous burning of the script, the product placement in the opening scene, various “crazy stuff” and Salzman’s bully-like demeanour. You may not learn a huge deal about the technical side of the film’s making, but then this isn’t what it’s all about. Put simply, we’re getting a compendium of every anecdote you ever heard, or are yet to hear, about The Ipcress File.

The second disc kicks off with an exclusive interview with Caine. At 21 minutes in length, this piece has the room to cover a lot of ground and indeed it does. The actor takes us through his very first with Salzman right through to a brief discussion of working with Ken Russell on the third Palmer movie, Billion Dollar Brain. In between he’s also able to relay gossip on a par with Furie, whether it be about Lionel Blair’s flat or cameraman Otto Heller’s fleeing of the Nazis. Once again, it makes for a hugely enjoyable listen.

Another exclusive is the ten-minute interview with Ken Adam. Less chirpy than Caine, it’s obvious that he’ll grant us a less entertaining listen, but then Adam is always worth paying attention to. Moreover, seeing as his designs for The Ipcress File were less flamboyant than his famed pieces for the Bond movies and Dr. Strangelove, there’s also a certain novelty to be hand.

The other exclusive made especially for this release is the Stella Street sketch by Phil Cornwell. As you’d expect it’s rife with in-jokes, yet oddly it also appears that this piece is intended as an introduction to the film. As such, shouldn’t it not have figured on the first disc?

More rewarding, and a piece which you’re likely to return to, is the 1969 LWT documentary Candid Caine. A long-form interview augmented by trips to Caine’s childhood haunts, it’s interesting to compare this to the newer interview. Here we find the actor less immediately sure of himself, slight affected perhaps and, bizarrely, doing an awful John Wayne impression. Indeed, it’s the kind of documentary you return to for the little moments: the awful waistcoats he dons throughout proceedings, or playing monopoly whilst his mum sits bored besides him. (Note that in typical Network style, the ad caps have all been retained, though licensing issues have meant that two brief excerpts couldn’t be included. These have been replaced with scenes from The Ipcress File.)

Rounding off the package we also have a handful of wonderfully atmospheric US radio spots (and ones in fine condition at that), a stills gallery which must surely contain at least 100 different images, and the option to watch the opening and closing credit sequences without the titles getting in the way.

As with the main feature, there are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise, on any of the extras.

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out of 10