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Ipcress File, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Michael Caine, working-class spy."
5 stars

It's a bit surprising that nobody has remade "The Ipcress File" or launched a new Harry Palmer film franchise. After all, James Bond is still a license to print money, author Len Deighton's name isn't completely forgotten and Jude Law could go for a hat trick of being cast in iconic Michael Caine roles (Caine, of course, would play a small part). Not that there's much room for improvement here; the version we've got is a great little thriller, all the more so because of how well it nails down its sixties spy-fi paranoia.

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) may be sarcastic and insubordinate, with an eye for the ladies, but he's good at his job in the Ministry of Defense - good enough for Col. Ross (Guy Doleman) to promote him out of surveillance when another agent is killed in action. His new supervisor, Maj. Dalby (Nigel Green), assigns him to the team investigating a sort of "brain drain" of government scientists quitting for unknown reasons. It's not so much a glamorous assignment filled with chases, though - there's legwork, paperwork, and politics as treacherous as anything else Palmer might uncover.

The Ipcress File is sort of what you would get if you split the difference between Ian Fleming and John LeCarré - a nefarious plot with larger than life elements combined with dangers that spring more from human pride and greed than any sort of mad science or world-conquering ambitions. The story is, in fact, an unusually well-balanced fusion of Cold War fears: The enemy within, the enemy without, a change in the world order that those in power still aren't used to even almost twenty years after the end of the War, and the threat of all this new science advancing at a frightening rate. Even a scene of Palmer and Dalby talking in a supermarket does a nice job of pointing out both how unglamorous intelligence work can be and how frightening the new world is for the old guard.

In the center of it all is Michael Caine as Harry Palmer, and this deceptively fascinating character offers the chance for a classic Caine tough-guy performance: Scenes where Palmer might in other hands come across as insouciant cross the border into rude, and it falls into place when the movie mentions his criminal past: This is a guy who is loyal to himself rather than any sort of higher ideal, and the glasses Caine wears throughout the film amplify a ruthless streak more than they diminish his physicality. And yet, Caine is still able to make him a hero of sorts; crisis brings out his latent humanity as well as resourcefulness.

And, of course, he's up against villains and filmmakers that have just as dogged a mean streak as himself. Screenwriters Bill Canaway & James Doran and director Sidney J. Furie adapt Len Deighton's novel with efficient clarity; they never overwhelm the audience with extraneous information but also assume that it is made up of people as smart as Palmer, so that when he can figure something out, they can dispense with explanations or flashbacks. When the time comes for action and violence it's tense and brutal, as the spy game is no place for people concerned with fair play over getting the job done, with a prisoner exchange midway through a special treat, using the characters' innate alertness and mistrust to good effect. Furie, cinematographer Otto Heller, and production designer Ken Adam also do a wonderful job of establishing how down-and-dirty this business is, with run-down surveillance posts and front businesses containing not high-tech underground headquarters but cramped, makeshift offices.

There's wit and charm, too - as much as Furie and company establish things as genuine threats, there is a sort of absurdity that appears if you squint. The supporting cast is simply sketched but enjoyable, particularly Gordon Jackson as Palmer's affable Scottish colleague and Nigel Green as the superior whose impeccably waxed mustache marks him as the upper-class foil to Caine's harnessed ruffian, and manages to play Dalby as both a holdover from another era and a man canny enough to know the spy business.

There's a scene or two of 1960s trippiness in there, too, and the occasional quip, but for the most part, "The Ipcress File" takes itself seriously, steeping what could be a carefree, swashbuckling spy adventure in Cold War cynicism which is just assumed rather than a point that the movie is trying to make.

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originally posted: 10/09/12 13:07:40
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sydney Film Festival For more in the 2005 Sydney Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/25/05 jboy great sense of place, good plot 5 stars
6/25/05 Richard Excellent old spy movie 4 stars
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  02-Aug-1965 (NR)
  DVD: 12-Oct-1999



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