The Ipcress File review

While working on the Bond movies with Cubby Broccoli, co-producer Harry Saltzman turned his attention away from the more glamorous world of Ian Fleming’s secret agent 007 to author Len Deighton’s grittier, insubordinate agent Harry Palmer. The result was movie gold with The Ipcress File in 1965 and the follow-up Funeral in Berlin in 1966.

Described by his superiors as “insolent, a trickster, perhaps with criminal tendencies”, ex-sergeant Harry Palmer is considered the perfect choice for reassignment to an elite counter-intelligence unit searching for a missing scientist. Using unorthodox methods frowned upon by his superiors; Palmer soon stumbles across a conspiracy within his own organisation. The discovery of a piece of audio tape containing the word ‘Ipcress’ and a bizarre electronic sound leads Palmer into a deadly confrontation with both counter-agents and the CIA.

Michael Caine’s laid-back style, which he honed to perfection in movies such as Zulu (1964) and Alfie (1966), perfectly suits the laconic government agent Harry Palmer. Bespectacled and unruffled, he effortlessly unravels the mystery while enjoying Mozart, the attentions of attractive colleague Jean (Sue Lloyd) and shopping for his favourite gourmet food. But as Deighton’s ingenious plot thickens, with everyone becoming a suspect in the scientist’s abduction, Palmer needs all his wits about him in order to solve the case and save his own skin.

Given its late-sixties setting, The Ipcress File is full of secret-cipher messages, codenames and passwords. Its plot is the result of Cold War tensions, full of stiff upper-lip military types who have ascended from the Second World War battlefields to the corridors of Whitehall. The premise might seem slow and deliberate by today’s standards, but there’s no denying that Deighton’s style is compelling and his characters utterly convincing.

Sidney J. Furie also directs the movie like a documentary. He zeroes in on his characters with intimate close-ups, or sets his camera at low angles, accentuating the claustrophobic qualities of the Whitehall offices with their peeled wallpaper and dark brown paintwork.

There’s a superb supporting cast, including Nigel Green and Guy Doleman as sparring partners in opposing government departments. One of them is most likely a traitor, but exactly who will keep you guessing to the last reel. Stalwart actor Gordon Jackson plays Palmer’s colleague Carswell, while Aubrey Richards makes for a suitably slimy villain.

Picture: Filmed in 2.33:1 Techniscope, Furie’s direction and Otto Heller’s cinematography takes full advantage of the widescreen format. This Blu-ray transfer is also crystal clear, with sharply focused imagery during the briefing (Chapter 3) and the opulent environment of the Science Museum library in chapter 4. Lighting and atmosphere are neatly captured in the underground car park (Chapter 8) and later during the harrowing prison sequence in chapter 12.
Picture rating: 4/5

Audio: There is a choice of two soundtracks on this Blu-ray disc, an LPCM 2.0 rendering of the original mono mix or a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix. The latter makes good use of the street sounds that accompany the numerous London scenes shot on location and, in particular, in the warehouse scenes in Chapter 12. However, for our tastes, the original mono version is the only way to go if you want to experience the film as it was always meant to sound.
Audio rating: 4/5

Extras: There are some superb special features available with this release, including a revealing 20-minute interview with Michael Caine about the making of the movie (Michael Caine is Harry Palmer), and 10 minutes in the company of the film’s award winning designer Ken Adam. Michael Caine Goes Stella is a five-minute comedy sketch with impressionist Phil Cornwall playing Deighton’s maverick hero, while Candid Caine is a fascinating 45-minute documentary from 1969, in which Caine discusses his early career. Trailers and image galleries make up the rest of the material.
Extras rating: 3.5/5

We Say: The flip side of James Bond, The Ipcress File is an impressively filmed thriller with first-rate performances from a sterling cast of British actors.

The Ipcress File, Network, Region B BD, £15 Approx
HCC Verdict: 4/5