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Film / The Ipcress File

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The Ipcress File is a 1965 British film, adapted from the Len Deighton novel, and starring Michael Caine as spy Harry Palmer.

It was directed by Sidney J. Furie and produced by Harry Saltzman, co-producer of the James Bond film series, who brought a lot of his Bond Production Posse over to the film, including designer Ken Adam, composer John Barry and editor Peter Hunt. Despite these links, The Ipcress File was a very different beast to the Bond films. Characters were less concerned with fighting villains in volcanoes than they were in ensuring that the correct paperwork was filled out. Its main hero was a bespectacled working-class former black marketeer who bought his groceries in supermarkets.

The Ipcress File proved an enormous success. The character of Harry Palmer was revived for two sequels based on Deighton novels, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain, as well as two further sequels not based on any of the novels, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg.

This film provides examples of:

  • AM/FM Characterization: Harry enjoys classical music, describing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as "music to cook by". Naturally, he finds a marching band's rendition of Mozart agonising.
  • Bald of Evil: Grantby's mute henchman, codenamed Housemartin.
  • Blind Without 'Em: Palmer. During the opening credits we see the room from Palmer's viewpoint, it's hopelessly blurred until he puts his specs on.
  • Bothering by the Book: As part of the Stale Beer approach, Palmer always has to fill out the correct forms.
  • Brain Drain: Referenced. Turns out another type of brain drain is happening — British scientists are being kidnapped and brainwashed to forget their knowledge.
  • Brits Love Tea: Heavily subverted; not only is Harry Palmer a coffee man, he even grinds his coffee beans himself. Of course, he's not the only British spy to prefer a decent cup of coffee in the morning.
  • Cacophony Cover Up: Used for an Overt Rendezvous. Harry Palmer and Colonel Dalby meet with shady agents at a bandstand in a park to seal a deal regarding the proto-proton scattering device. The loud marching music played by the band indeed drowns out their talk.
  • Colour Motif: In almost every scene in which Major Dalby appears, the colour red is somewhere close by indicating that he was the traitor. Such examples of this clue include the red heater in Dalby's office, the military band dressed in red playing "The Thin Red Line" which Dalby enjoyed, the military band marching on street as Dalby goes to meet Ross in the park, the red roof of the car next to the dead CIA agent, the red sign reflected in the car window Dalby sat next to, the red interior of Dalby's sports car, the fire fighting equipment he stands next to in the final scene, and obviously the red lamp shade that was near him when he was finally revealed to be the traitor.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: Dalby's intelligence unit poses as an employment agency, and several other front companies.
  • Creator Cameo: A particular example. When Harry Palmer makes his date a meal, the hands doing the cooking and cracking the eggs are those of the original novel writer, Len Deighton — who was also an accomplished cookery writer, having written and drawn the cookstrips for The Observer, some of which can be seen pinned to the wall in Harry's kitchen.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Palmer incessantly. Ross and Dalby quite often.
  • Fauxtastic Voyage: As part of his brainwashing, Harry Palmer is made to think his kidnappers have taken him to communist Albania. When he breaks out of his prison, he's surprised to find he's in the middle of London.
  • Foreshadowing: Twice Dalby is seen to have an anomalous shadow: once on the projector screen after the projector has been turned off and again in the warehouse when he is asked to stand under the light yet he casts a strong shadow against the wall. Assuming these are not goofs they are surely meant as metaphors for his shadowy nature.
  • Friend on the Force: Palmer uses one to track down Grantby aka Bluejay, via parking tickets.
  • The Glasses Come Off: Palmer removes his glasses before getting into a fight with Housemartin, which he wins.
  • Insert Cameo: 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, who 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.
  • The Ludovico Technique: Similar in premise to A Clockwork Orange, the Enhanced Interrogation Techniques' used on Palmer is pretty close to this. He is subjected to sleep deprivation and bombarded by bright lights and loud noises as part of a procedure also used to give kidnapped scientists complete amnesia of any scientific knowledge.
  • Morning Routine: The film opens with Palmer calmly getting out of bed and going through his morning rituals of getting dressed and having breakfast - all to the tune of John Barry's insanely cool theme music.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The opening has Harry Palmer getting up, getting dressed, making and eating breakfast, all to the accompaniment of one of the most haunting movie themes ever composed. However, this is deliberate and emphasizes the unglamorous take on spies found throughout the movie. It also establishes Harry Palmer as a forward-looking man of his time, as Britain comes out of post-war austerity. A man who grinds his own beans to make real coffee is something unusual. There's also the fact that Palmer follows his coffee-making with fishing out a Pillow Pistol from his bed which is a clever visual shorthand for him being more than he initially appears.
  • Must Have Caffeine: In that same opening scene, Palmer grinds some espresso beans and runs them through a French press - simultaneously showing he's a man with particular tastes (The '60s was the age of the percolator and instant coffee) and averting what you'd expect a British spy to start his day with — although the most famous fictional British spy of them all would doubtless approve of his preference for good coffee.
  • Officer and a Gentleman: Palmer's bosses Colonel Ross and Major Dalby. One of them is a traitor.
  • Overt Rendezvous: Palmer and Dalby meet with shady agents at a bandstand in a park to seal a deal regarding the proto-proton scattering device. The loud marching music indeed drowns out their talk.
  • Pants-Positive Safety: Palmer stores his gun in his waistband. Unlike 007, he doesn't seem to own a shoulder holster.
  • Pillow Pistol: In the opening sequence, Harry Palmer takes a gun out from under his duvet.
  • Plunger Detonator: A couple of these show up next to a rack of hand grenades. Palmer pushes the handle of one down, presumably to see if it's connected to anything.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: The original novel was set in a number of countries. The film was set solely in Britain, which cut down on costs and gave the film an identity of its own away from the Bond Films.
  • Public Secret Message: Harry Palmer tries to negotiate a trade with a villain. In reply he's given a flyer with a phone number written on it and told to call at a particular time. Harry however dials the number straight away and is told by the operator that it doesn't exist. Realising he's been fooled, he chases after the villain only to be beaten up by his bodyguard. Harry returns to his boss and admits defeat, whereupon he's told to look at the flyer — advertising a public band performance where the villain is in fact waiting.
  • Real Men Cook: It could be argued that this was the film that made it all right for men to cook for their women. Note: When Palmer goes to make his date a meal; the hands doing the cooking and cracking the eggs are those of the original novel writer, Len Deighton.
  • Real Men Wear Pink: The film was criticised at the time for showing a badass spy who cooked gourmet food both for himself and to impress women. The viewing public didn't mind and these days people hardly notice.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: The brainwashing plot wasn't in the novel. According to Len Deighton, it Harry Saltzman's idea:
    Harry had got hold of a copy of Life magazine and read this article about people being brainwashed in Korea or something and it captured his imagination. He took it I think first to Cubby and some of the other Bond people and said, "We've got to have this brainwashing sequence", and they said, "No, Harry, it's not a good idea". So, having been repelled by the Bond people, Harry put it in Ipcress. In the end, they shot it at Pinewood.
  • Slap Yourself Awake: Palmer gets captured and is tortured by being subjected to a machine that messes with his senses and will eventually brainwash him into a Loss of Identity. Eventually, he finds a sharp piece of wood and squeezes on that while being tortured, as the pain distracts him enough that the process doesn't work.
  • Specs of Awesome: Harry Palmer wears them.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: It can be seen as an anti-Bond film, given how it's as far removed from the glitz and glamour of 007 as you can get. In fact, Harry Saltzman pitched it as "kitchen sink Bond".
  • Spy Fiction: Definitely Stale Beer flavoured. Also an interesting example because it was made by the Bond films' production posse as a more down-to-earth alternative to the increasingly Martini-flavoured Bonds.note  It was made the same year as fellow Stale Beer spy yarns The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Danger Man, but almost looks subversive in retrospect compared to Bond, The Avengers, and the like.
  • Spy Speak: Parodied. At the beginning of the movie Harry's spying on a building and reads out an innocuous sounding list, which we automatically assume is code — but it isn't, and what he's watching really is that innocuous.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: Harry Palmer is being sent away on attachment to Major Dalby's unit by his dour boss Colonel Ross. Before he goes Ross warns "Be careful with Major Dalby. He doesn't have my sense of humour". When he arrives, Major Dalby warns "Be careful with me. I don't have Colonel Ross's sense of humour".
  • Take Our Word for It: Both Ross and Dalby remark that Dalby doesn't have Ross' sense of humour, which is nowhere in evidence.
  • The Trickster: Palmer is explicitly described as this in his personnel file.
  • Trigger Phrase: "Now listen to me. Shoot the traitor Ross." Fortunately, Palmer wasn't in the brainwashing chamber long enough, so is able to "distract" himself by striking his injured hand against the wall, then shooting the real Double Agent.
  • Trope Maker: An early major example of the Stale Beer approach to Spy Fiction, along with the adaptation of Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
  • Unfriendly Fire: Palmer accidentally shoots an American agent.
  • Virtual-Reality Interrogation: Not done with technology, but in a combination of this idea and 2 + Torture = 5, the Harry Palmer is captured and held by enemy spies in a secret location in London. As part of an attempt to break him mentally and physically, his captors try to convince him that he's a criminal and traitor being held in an Eastern European prison. This includes having him visited by a spy pretending to be a representative of the Foreign Office, and thus a friendly face.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: Palmer wakes up in a cold and nasty prison cell, apparently in Albania.