The Ipcress File is a 1965 British espionage film directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Michael Caine. The screenplay, by Bill Canaway and James Doran, was based on Len Deighton’s novel The IPCRESS File (1962).
This film and its sequels were a deliberately downbeat alternative to the hugely successful James Bond films, even though some of the production team were previously involved with the 007 movies. A TV series followed in 2022.
Refer to Harry Palmer Franchise.
A scientist called Radcliffe is kidnapped from a train and his security escort killed. Harry Palmer, a British Army sergeant with a criminal past, now working for a Ministry of Defence organisation, is summoned by his superior, Colonel Ross, and transferred to a section headed by Major Dalby. Ross suspects that Radcliffe’s disappearance is connected to the fact that sixteen other top British scientists have inexplicably left their jobs at the peak of their careers. He threatens Dalby that his group will go if Radcliffe cannot be recovered. Palmer is then introduced as a replacement for the dead security escort.
Afterwards, Dalby briefs his agents that the main suspect is Eric Grantby and his chief of staff, codenamed “Housemartin”, and tells the team to find out where they are at present. Palmer is also introduced to and befriends Jock Carswell. Using a Scotland Yard contact, Palmer locates Grantby but, when Palmer tries to stop Grantby getting away, he is attacked by Housemartin.
Housemartin is arrested later but, before he can be questioned, he is killed by men impersonating Palmer and Carswell. Suspecting that Radcliffe is being held in a certain disused factory, Palmer orders a search, but nothing is found except a piece of audiotape marked “IPCRESS” that produces meaningless noise when played. Dalby then points out that the paper on which Grantby had written a false phone number is the programme for an upcoming military band concert. There they encounter Grantby and a deal is struck for Radcliffe’s return.
The exchange goes as planned but, as they are leaving, Palmer shoots a man in the shadows who turns out to be a CIA agent. Subsequently, another CIA operative threatens to kill Palmer if he discovers that the death was not a mistake. Some days later, it becomes clear that while Radcliffe is physically unharmed, his mind has been affected and he can no longer function as a scientist. Carswell has discovered a book titled “Induction of Psychoneurosis by Conditioned Reflex under Stress” – IPCRESS – which he believes explains what has happened to Radcliffe and the other scientists. Carswell borrows Palmer’s car to test his theory on Radcliffe, but is shot before reaching him.
Believing that he himself must have been the intended target, Palmer goes home to collect his belongings and there discovers the body of the second CIA agent. When he returns to the office, the IPCRESS file is missing from his desk. Ross had previously asked him to microfilm the file and Palmer now believes that he is being set up. When he informs Dalby what has happened and that he suspects Ross, Dalby tells him to leave town for a while.
On the train to Paris, Palmer is kidnapped and wakes up imprisoned in a cell in Albania. After several days without sleep, food and warmth, Grantby reveals himself as his kidnapper. Having previously read the file, Palmer realises that they are preparing to brainwash him. He uses pain to distract himself, but after many sessions under stress from disorientating images and loud electronic sounds, he succumbs. Grantby then instils a trigger phrase that will make Palmer follow any commands given to him.
Palmer eventually manages to escape and discovers that he is really still in London. He phones Dalby, who is in Grantby’s company at the time. Dalby uses the trigger phrase and gets Palmer to call Ross to the warehouse where he had been held. As Dalby and Ross arrive, Palmer holds them both at gunpoint. Dalby accuses Ross of killing Carswell; Ross tells Palmer that he had been suspicious of Dalby and was investigating him.
Dalby now uses the trigger phrase again and tells Palmer to “Shoot the traitor now”. As Palmer wavers, his hand strikes against a piece of equipment and the pain reminds him of his conditioning. Dalby goes for his gun and Palmer shoots him. Ross then remarks that, in choosing Palmer for the assignment, he had hoped that Palmer’s tendency to insubordination would be useful. When Palmer reproaches Ross for endangering him, he is told that this is what he is paid for.
- Michael Caine as Harry Palmer.
- Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross.
- Nigel Green as Major Dalby.
- Sue Lloyd as Jean Courtney.
- Gordon Jackson as Jock Carswell.
- Aubrey Richards as Dr. Radcliffe.
- Frank Gatliff as Eric Grantby (Bluejay).
- Thomas Baptiste as Barney.
- Oliver MacGreevy as Housemartin.
- Freda Bamford as Alice.
- Pauline Winter as Charlady.
- Anthony Blackshaw as Edwards.
- Barry Raymond as Gray.
- David Glover as Chilcott-Oakes.
- Stanley Meadows as Inspector Keightley.
- Peter Ashmore as Sir Robert.
- Michael Murray as Raid Inspector.
- Anthony Baird as Raid Sergeant.
- Tony Caunter as O.N.I. man.
- Douglas Blackwell as Murray.
- Glynn Edwards as Police Station Sergeant.
Deighton was hired to write a screenplay for the James Bond film From Russia with Love, but later was let go because of a lack of progress. However, Deighton’s brief involvement with Eon Productions led him to sell the film rights to his Harry Palmer novels to the Bond series co-producer Harry Saltzman, who had previously been known for producing “kitchen-sink realist” dramas. Among other crew members who worked on The Ipcress File and had also worked on the Bond films up to this point were the production designer Ken Adam, the film editor Peter Hunt and the film score composer John Barry.
Harry Saltzman gave Jimmy Sangster a copy of the novel to read. Sangster enjoyed the book and was eager to adapt the novel, suggesting Michael Caine to play the main role and Sidney J. Furie as director. However, Saltzman would not commit to the timeframe that Sangster insisted upon.
Sangster embellished Deighton’s protagonist by removing the ambiguity of the novel. There it is only in Chapter 5 that Palmer remarks, “My name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it ever had been”. But from the opening scenes of the film, Sangster’s screenplay identifies Caine’s character clearly as someone who cares little for authority, who indulges in quick repartee and has an interest in good food. Newspaper cuttings shown in Palmer’s kitchen are actually cookery articles written for The Observer by Deighton, who was an accomplished cook himself. For a scene where Palmer prepares a meal, Deighton attempted to teach Caine how to crack an egg with one hand, which Caine could not manage. As a result, the hands in close-up are really Deighton’s.
Saltzman wanted The Ipcress File to be an ironic and downbeat alternative to the portrayal of espionage in Ian Fleming’s novels about the spy James Bond and the film series which followed from them. He also wanted it to be more in the style of his previous realist films. The Ipcress File therefore became the first of the nominally rival Harry Palmer series and some aspects are reminiscent of film noir. In contrast to Bond’s public school background and playboy lifestyle, Palmer is a working class Londoner who lives in a Notting Hill bedsit and has to put up with red tape and inter-departmental rivalries. The action is set entirely in “a gritty, gloomy, decidedly non-swinging” London with humdrum locations.
The film was made at Pinewood Studios with sets designed by the art directors Peter Murton and Ken Adam. The film was shot on location around London in the widescreen screen ratio using Techniscope. In this format, the normal 35mm film frame is split in half, each now taking up only two perforations on the edges of the film stock rather than usual four. The format was introduced by Technicolor Italia in 1963 and allowed for a greater depth of field as it was shot with shorter focal length lenses than used in the anamorphic widescreen processes. This allowed cinematographer Otto Heller to construct images in deep focus, shooting behind objects and allowing both the objects in the foreground and the action taking place in the background to be in focus.
John Barry, who had worked on all of the Bond films up to this time, composed the music score for the soundtrack. As opposed to the electric guitar which carried the melody in the “James Bond Theme”, Barry made prominent use of a cimbalom. The complex electronic sound effect of the brain-washing process was conceived by sound engineer Norman Wanstall and created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
When the film premiered at the Leicester Square Theatre in London on 18 March 1965, the film critic for The Times had mixed feelings about it. While enjoying the first part of the film, and generally praising Michael Caine, the critic found the second half bewildering to the extent that the characters “cease to be pleasantly mystifying and become just irritatingly obscure.” A review in Variety was largely positive, describing the film as “anti-Bond” for its unglamorous depiction of espionage, and praising Caine’s understated performance but criticizing the sometimes “arty-crafty” camera work.
Subsequently, the film has come to be recognised as a classic. The Ipcress File is included on the British Film Institute’s BFI 100, a list of 100 of the best British films of the 20th century, at No. 59.
The film won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film, and Ken Adam won the award for ‘Best British Art Direction, Colour’.
Screenwriters Bill Canaway and James Doran received a 1966 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Foreign Film Screenplay.
There were two immediate sequels starring Harry Palmer: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Decades later Michael Caine returned to the character in Harry Alan Towers’s Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).
A TV series was also developed, with the first season airing in 2022.
- Harry Palmer is depicted as an accomplished cook, but when you see Palmer skilfully break a couple of eggs, the hands in the close-up belong to Len Deighton, author of the book on which this movie was based.
- Deighton was an accomplished cook and also wrote a comic strip about cooking for The Observer.
- The walls of Palmer’s kitchen are full of these strips.
- Palmer is the first action hero to wear glasses.
- Sir Michael Caine is near-sighted in real life.
- Caine chose to wear glasses because he expected this movie to be the first of a franchise, similar to the Bond movies.
- He feared being over-identified with the character of Harry Palmer, and so he wore the glasses so that he could remove them for other roles.
- Three pairs of glasses were used by Sir Michael Caine during filming.
- When all of these were broken during filming, production was held up for a day, until replacements had been found.
- After that, the Prop Department was stocked with twenty extra pairs of the Harry Palmer model glasses.
- This movie proved to be a major influence on the style and ambiance of the popular television series, Mission: Impossible (1966).
- Television producer and director Bernard L. Kowalski had seen this movie and was so impressed, he requested that a similar mood and urgency be emulated for the show.
- Harry was offered an annual salary of one thousand four hundred pounds sterling for his new job.
- This was less than twice the average wage in 1965, so not a fantastic sum for the danger involved.
Production & Filming Details
- Sidney J. Furie.
- Charles D. Kasher … executive producer.
- Ronald Kinnoch … associate producer.
- Harry Saltzman … producer.
- Len Deighton … (novel).
- W.H. Canaway … (screenplay) (as Bill Canaway).
- James Doran … (screenplay).
- Lionel Davidson … (uncredited).
- Johanna Harwood … (uncredited).
- Lukas Heller … (uncredited).
- Ken Hughes … (uncredited).
- John Barry.
- Otto Heller.
- Peter R. Hunt (as Peter Hunt).
- Lowndes Productions Limited.
- Rank Film Distributors (1965) (UK) (theatrical).
- Universal Pictures (1965) (USA) (theatrical).
- British Empire Films Australia (1965) (Australia) (theatrical).
- Rank Film (1965) (West Germany) (theatrical).
- Rank Film (1965) (Italy) (theatrical).
- Rank Film Distributors of Sweden (1965) (Sweden) (theatrical).
- Kommunenes Filmcentral (KF) (1965) (Norway) (theatrical).
- Parvisfilmi (1966) (Finland) (theatrical).
- Gold Film (1972) (Italy) (theatrical) (re-release).
- Sound & Media (2005) (UK) (theatrical).
- Beyond Home Entertainment (2009) (Australia) (Blu-ray).
- Carlton Video (1999) (UK) (DVD).
- Cult Media (2014) (Italy) (Blu-ray).
- Dutch FilmWorks (DFW) (2005) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- Elephant Films (2014) (France) (Blu-ray).
- Elephant Films (2014) (France) (DVD).
- Filmax Home Video (2005) (Spain) (DVD).
- Future Film (2005) (Finland) (DVD) (3-disc Ultimate Harry Palmer Box).
- Future Film (2008) (Finland) (DVD) (1-disc edition).
- Georgiadis Ilekroniki (1984) (Greece) (VHS).
- Granada Ventures (2006) (UK) (DVD).
- ITV DVD (2008) (UK) (Blu-ray).
- Imprint Films (2021) (Australia) (Blu-ray).
- Kino Lorber Studio Classics (2020) (USA) (Blu-ray).
- Koch Films (2020) (Germany) (Blu-ray).
- Koch Media (2004) (Germany) (DVD).
- MCA Home Video (1987) (USA) (VHS).
- Magna Pacific (2005) (Australia) (DVD).
- NRK2 (2015) (Norway) (TV).
- NRK2 (2016) (Norway) (TV).
- PVB Editions (2003) (France) (DVD).
- Pickwick Video (1990) (UK) (VHS).
- Premium Cine (2021) (Spain) (video).
- Rank Video Library (1987) (UK) (VHS).
- Seven Sept (2007) (France) (DVD).
- Star Media Entertainment (2006) (Norway) (DVD).
- TF1 (1993) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- Topanga Canyon Films (2018) (Spain) (all media).
- Videoscope (1981) (Australia) (video).
- Yleisradio (YLE) (1990) (Finland) (TV).
- Release Date: 18 March 1965 (UK).
- Rating: A.
- Running Time: 109 minutes.
- Country: UK.
- Language: English.