*. In my notes on The Ipcress File I mentioned how Len Deighton was a much better writer than Ian Fleming. He is, but he’s also more difficult. I don’t just mean in terms of plot either. Deighton has a habit of delaying explanations of what’s going on until an action is over, which has the effect of leaving the reader in a fog some of the time.
*. But then there is the plot. I have to admit that, reading the novel, I had trouble keeping Johnnie (Johnny in the film) Vulkan and Paul Louis Broum separate. By the end, when the (unnamed) agent is trying to explain he even says “Vulkan, Broum, whatever you want to call him.” Basically the point is that Vulkan was a German prison guard and Broum a rich Jewish prisoner who paid off an SS officer to kill Vulkan so that Broum could assume his identity. Then, in order to get his money out of a Swiss bank he needs identity papers from the British government to prove he’s Broum. These will be provided in order to expedite the defection of a scientist.
*. I think that’s it, and in outline it’s the same as in the movie, though they’ve cut some of the characters like the defecting scientist. But I don’t think anyone coming to the movie cold would have a hope of figuring it out. I’d read the book and I had a hard enough time just trying to keep straight what side of the Berlin Wall we were supposed to be on.
*. If you’re not meant to be following the plot, what are we meant to be doing? Admiring another cool performance by Michael Caine, who plays Harry Palmer beautifully as someone who knows a lot more than he’s letting on. He’s got the perfect deadpan in a game of double- and triple-crosses. And also worth noting is the good look around Cold War Berlin we get by way of some great use of locations. I mentioned how burned-out London looked in The Ipcress File (more like Vienna in The Third Man than the swinging London of the ’60s). Berlin is looking just as worse for wear here, much as it does in The Quiller Memorandum. This is the dirty anti-Bond look they were going for.
*. An anti-Bond from a lot of the Bond team. Harry Saltzman producing and Ken Adam on production design, just as with The Ipcress File. John Barry didn’t do the score but that’s Guy Hamilton directing, coming (almost) right off of Goldfinger. Another name you might not recognize (because she was rarely credited) is Nikki Van der Zyl, providing the voice for Eva Renzi, who plays Samantha Steele. Van der Zyle was probably “in” more of these spy movies in the ’60s than any other actor. She also did the lead female voices in all of the early Bond films, including Dr. No (Honey Ryder), Goldfinger (Jill Masterson), and Thunderball (Domino).
*. It’s a quiet movie, I think deliberately so. For example, the novel ends with a gunfight that takes place during a fireworks celebration on Guy Fawkes Night. Here there’s a game of cat and mouse played in a ruined building filled with shadows, with little noise at all. That’s a direction you don’t often see a film adaptation taking.
*. The quiet ending may have disappointed audiences. And the confusion of the plot probably didn’t help it at the box office either. I’ve seen a lot of people who rank it last among the Harry Palmer movies. Perhaps it’s because I know the book, but I like it a little better and would put it ahead of The Ipcress File. I enjoyed the atmosphere, Johnny Vulkan’s flashy car (a bronze 1959 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz convertible), and the cool banter among the various spies and schemers who all think they’re playing a chess game on different levels. Of course, only one of them can be right.