*. Success leads to imitation and parody. In the case of the Cold War spy story in the wake of Bondmania though there was an alternative path, which was correction. Why not make espionage less glamorous, more realistic, grubby, even mundane? Why not add in some darkness and moral ambiguity? Thus was born Bond redux. That Harry Saltzman, who produced the early Bond films, would also produce The Ipcress File was perfectly apt. He would profit from both the disease and its cure.
*. Enter Len Deighton and his tetralogy of spy novels, three of which were made into movies with Michael Caine as the British spy Harry Palmer (a nom de scène; in the books he’s unnamed).
*. I can’t remember who it was that said bad books make good movies, but when considering the spy genre it does have the ring of truth. The thing is, Ian Fleming was a terrible writer. Deighton is much better: funny, clever, intelligent, and even at times a bit adventurous. He uses words like “azoic” and “horrisonous” just for kicks. I’d rather go back and read him than all but one or two of the Bond novels any day. But, for better or for worse, Bond became the franchise hero while Deighton’s protagonist is largely unknown. After a run of successful novels (four) and movies (three) in the 1960s Palmer made one more appearance in the mid ’70s (Spy Story) and a couple of TV movies (not written by Deighton) in the mid ’90s.
*. I think I know what some of the problem was. Deighton wasn’t that great at movie writing. The action scenes in his books don’t play like movie scenarios, and indeed at times they can be hard to follow. The film version of The Ipcress File is a very free adaptation of the book, getting rid of all of the stuff in the South Pacific where the Americans are testing a neutron bomb. Perhaps that seemed too Bondish. What they’ve added, however, are lots of great movie touches. That opening scene of the kidnapping where the different man appears in the train carriage is totally new. There’s nothing like it in the book.
*. Alas, the one thing they couldn’t really change, because it’s so central it gives us the title, is the brainwashing stuff. Too bad. I was trying to think of movies that have done a good job dealing with brainwashing or hypnosis. Of course there’s the tour de force of The Manchurian Candidate, but aside from that I couldn’t come up with anything. I think because all of the action takes place in someone’s head and it’s almost impossible to present this credibly. In this film they take the approach that would go on to become very familiar — the man strapped into a chair while lights and pictures play all around him, a la The Sorcerers, A Clockwork Orange, The Parallax View (there seems to have been some anxiety underlying all this about what television was doing to us) — but even with Michael Caine doing his best, I still wasn’t buying any of it.
*. Michael Caine has been with us for so long, and he’s so familiar, not least for being in so many crumby parts, that it’s easy to forget how good he can be. He’s in top form here as the almost-too-smart-for-his-own-good Palmer. And he’s backed up with some capable supporting players too. Nigel Green is particularly well cast as the eccentric Dalby, complete with Imperial moustache, while Guy Doleman fits the bill as the dour Ross.
*. The atmosphere is a wonderful mix of a conservative (brollies and bowlers) but low-rent London that seems far from swinging. Indeed, it’s a city that’s nearly indistinguishable from the Berlin of next year’s The Quiller Memorandum. Then it’s shaken up with trendy direction from Sidney J. Furie. The compositions are all weird angles (high and low), Dutch tilts, and foregrounds obstructing half or more of the frame. If you’re going to discover a body, why not reveal it by shooting down through a light fixture? Or hide half of Dalby’s face behind a furious red lampshade? This is nutty stuff, but it’s quite a lot of fun. They don’t make movies like this anymore.
*. Caine says the studio wanted the scene of Palmer cooking to be cut because it made him look like a “fag” (their word). In fact Deighton, who wrote two books on cookery as well as a regular newspaper “cookstrip” (recipes with illustrations), quite enjoyed cooking. And those are his hands seen in close-up doing the meal prep. I wonder if Caine knew how to cook. Apparently he didn’t know how to drive.
*. Fun stuff, but it winds up on a low note. There isn’t much of a payoff at all, and since they’ve already revealed what’s going on there’s no real suspense. Up until the final act though it’s good work. Not as entertaining as one of the early Bond vehicles, but fine in its own way.