I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t know who Michael Caine was. He just seems to have always been an actor who is very much liked in my household. My mother has always adored him. She introduced so many of his films to me, such as Zulu, which we both love because it’s one of a handful of 20th century films that show an African nation as being brave and skilled; Alfie, Get Carter and The Cider House Rules. My father has always liked him, too. Which is really saying something because my dad doesn’t enjoy movies all that much, and he doesn’t have a high opinion of most actors. But he’ll watch pretty much anything Michael is in. Well done, Michael.
For Gil’s blogathon I decided that I wanted to choose a film that neither I nor my mother had seen, and so I chose The Ipcress File. I knew nothing about it, especially not that it had such close production ties to the James Bond franchise, which is something else that has always been cherished in my family. Watching the film and reading up about its credentials, the James Bond connections are undeniable. Harry Saltzman, one of the major producers of the Connery Bond films produced Ipcress, John Barry, the originator of the Bond theme, scored the film, and Peter R Hunt, who edited so many Bond outings, also edited this film.
But The Ipcress File is not a Bond film. Even though Harry Palmer and James Bond are both described by their superiors as being insubordinate, with a tendency for rogue behaviour and utter womanisers, Palmer lacks the encyclopaedic knowledge that Bond has in every film, and he’s also far less perfectly coifed. Yes Bond has his human side, which has been especially highlighted in the Craig era of films, but Palmer really, really sweats in Ipcress. Unlike Bond who’s normally given a briefing at the beginning of each film, Palmer has to figure out things for himself, and by god does that take some leg work. He spends a large part of the film just trying to track down the main villain, unlike Bond who normally knows who the baddie is from the get go; and the great master plan is not explained to Palmer in any way. He actually has to undergo the master plan in order find out what’s cooking in the espionage kitchen.
I won’t attempt to describe the plot of the film in this post. Firstly I would not do its convoluted, building pace any justice, nor would it do any service to the film. The Ipcress File is the kind of film that has a plot that must be revealed to the viewer slowly and carefully in order for its maximum impact to be felt. Instead, I will concentrate on the film’s performances, which are all solid gold. And no, there’s no villain like Goldfinger lurking about in this one.
Nigel Green, who plays Palmer’s new division boss, Dalby, is absolutely stellar in this film. His moustache is perfectly waxed, almost reminiscent of Hercule Poirot’s. He comes across as a pencil pusher, and therefore he and Palmer instantly hate each other. Unlike M in the Bond films, you get the distinct feeling that he would rather see Palmer die than complete his mission. In fact, Green’s portrayal of Dalby is the perfect portrayal of the kind of upper echelon, well bred, Eton educated borderline sociopaths that made up the British secret service during the Cold War. His eyes are like chips of ice melded with unyielding blue stone, cold, unsettling and completely lacking in any emotion. He’s the type to politely clap after an agent has murdered someone and written a stellar field report on it.
Guy Doleman, who Bond fans will recognise as the chap who gets a good boiling in Thunderball, plays Palmer’s ex division boss, Ross. Like Dalby he seems very disinterested in the welfare of his agents, but there’s something slightly more human about him. He doesn’t like Palmer either, but he recognises that Palmer has a talent, that he’s the man who will undercover what needs to be uncovered. But his morality isn’t exactly clear either, especially when he converses with Palmer about half way through the film and when he speaks to Palmer at the end of the film, where he makes it quite clear that he thinks Palmer and any other agents are entirely expendable. Dalby and Ross are supposed to be the good guys, but they seem to be of the same fabric, perhaps slightly differently cut and presented than the film’s out and out villain, Bluejay.
Frank Gatliff who plays Bluejay also couldn’t be farther from a Bond villain. In fact, if you saw him in the street, you’d look right through him. And that’s why he’s so unnerving and dangerous in this film. We first see him sitting in a library, reading books on physics. He’s entirely unassuming, with thinning blonde hair and a pinched mouth. He even scolds Harry for talking in the library. But it becomes very obvious very soon that he’s an incredibly ruthless, calculated and intelligent man. His plot against Harry is masterful, almost perfect, except for the fact that he’s dealing with Harry Palmer, who is bloody minded and determined. Let’s just say there’s a scene that features a nail that you will not forget for a very long time after watching this film.
The direction by Sidney J. Furie, who won a BAFTA for Ipcress and was nominated for a Palm d’Or, is brilliant. It reminds me very much of Point Blank and Le Samouraï. Like John Boorman and Jean-Pierre Melville, Furie knows exactly how to pace a film so that things have a slow, creeping suspense. He knows exactly how things escalate, seemingly uneventful or usual the one moment, and then suddenly frenetic, terrible, gut wrenching. But these kinds of scenes are used sparingly and for maximum impact. There’s no cheap thrills to be found here. The story constructed by Bill Canaway and James Doran based on Len Deighton is created with utter care. Every camera angle is chosen specifically to reflect the mood of a scene without any dialogue even being necessary. One of my favourite examples of this is when Harry’s face is shown towards the end of the film, partially obscured by a short, steel headrail, and Michael Caine’s eyes shimmer, brimming with tears of pain and fear. That’s what you see, the raw fear and pain in his eyes, nothing else. Furie knows how to film with a light touch.
The cinematography from Otto Heller, who also worked on the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets, does much to support Furie’s direction. The way in which he manages to show both interactions in small spaces and large outdoor scenes, is extremely impressive. The contrast between inside and outside light is clear and realistic. And while this may seem like an odd thing to highlight, it adds to the believability of the film. Harry’s apartment is believable because of its lighting and cinematography, and the scenes outside, some of the most important of the film, have the same realism about them. There is nothing glossy or overly stark, things seem to be what they are in life.
Now let’s get to the main attraction of the film: Michael Caine. Michael Caine is often touted as an actor who tends to perhaps be overly expressive. He’s particularly prodded for his shouting scenes that feature angry outbursts. But there is none of that in this film. His portrayal of Harry is perfectly balanced. He manages to show his disrespect and displeasure at the conduct of his superiors with just his eyes, or a movement of his mouth. The way in which he carries himself throughout movie is fascinating to watch, he seems relaxed at all times, but you can see there’s a certain tension about the shoulder’s, a physical awareness of threats. But it’s ever so slight, and only becomes obvious in certain scenes. He doesn’t make it a thing.
His emotional pitch is also excellent. The emotional response of his character undergoes a major change throughout the film, and there’s nothing forced about the way in which he shows this change. It isn’t jarring that he goes from being a bit of a smart ass at the beginning of the film, to a man framed and slightly desperate, to someone fighting for their very survival and the control of their own mind. He builds on his character in such a way that Harry Palmer becomes something real, someone who can actually imagine doing intelligence work, both unable to escape his past and bound to a bureaucratic machine he detests.
There’s a slight bitterness about Harry, especially at the end of the film, something that may erode him from the inside out in the future, but Michael only hints at it. He doesn’t need to spell it out for the audience. His performance in the closing sequence of the film will have you holding your breath, he ramps up the tension, but by being very restrained, his inner feelings and thoughts simmering below the service. In my opinion, it’s one of the best performances of his career, and one he should be remembered for more often. Especially to show what a versatile actor he is, not just because he wasn’t always very picky with his roles.
Are you a fan of this film? Let me know.
This is my contribution for The Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon being hosted by Realweegiemidget reviews. Please visit her blog for more information and to read everyone’s contributions.