Palmer, Sans Cheese
The IPCRESS File
Directed by Sidney J. Furie
UK BluRay Zone B
When this well loved and hugely popular British spy film was released into cinemas back in 1965, one of the criticisms of it was that it was “over directed”... whatever that means.
I don’t think it’s over directed.
I think it’s... not only one of the greatest pieces of technically brilliant film making ever committed to celluloid, able to get away with so many innovative things within its modest running time... it also does all these amazing things without ever once losing the fiery, burning, emotive heart at its centre. You do care for and relate to the various characters as you meet them throughout the course of the film... and that’s just the icing on the cake.
Based on the first of Len Deighton’s four novels about a nameless (in the books) spy - The IPCRESS File, Horse Under Water, Funeral In Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain (the last two were also made into sequels to this film) - it was pretty much a conscious decision that the central spy role, called Harry Palmer in the films, a role which pretty much shot Michael Caine to international stardom, would be an antidote to the kind of 'secret agent' stereotypes running in the wake of the hugely successful James Bond films produced, at that time, by Saltzman and Broccoli. Indeed, Harry Saltzman also produced this movie, although he hated the director, which is a shame because Furie is a veritable magician of the silver screen when it comes to what he did with this movie.
I’ve been watching this series of films for over three decades by now and my friend bought me the new Blu Ray edition from the Network label for Christmas. It’s an absolutely brilliant print/transfer and, watching it once more, I am falling in love with the movie all over again as the spellbinding technical innovation, combined with the beautifully written, sharply witty script and the unbelievably cool musical score from John Barry... all work their magic.
The film starts off with almost a double pre-credits sequence, first starting with the kidnapping of a scientist and the death of a British Secret Service agent before introducing us to Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer character waking up in bed to his alarm clock. The credits start running as he goes about his business making coffee, dressing and various other things in a dull routine, with the finding of a misplaced gun in bed to juxtapose the concept that the life of a secret agent is often as humdrum as any other job.
However, even getting to the point where the credits start running over this sequence, the visual and audio artistry already comprises a brilliant few minutes of film, full of beautiful ideas. For instance, as the scientist Radcliffe and his bodyguard, an unnamed secret agent, are walking down Marylebone Station, Furie and his editor Peter Hunt (who edited the early James Bond films and who would later go on to direct the greatest Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service - reviewed here) use shots of the two of them walking towards the camera. The camera then cuts (on movement, which is an innovation Hunt first brought into play in Dr. No - reviewed here) away to something else before cutting back on the same scene at a slightly different angle and with the figures closer to the camera, still moving towards us. This is pretty amazing because I reckon the first time you see this movie, you don’t even notice Furie doing little dynamic things like this. But this is not the only thing in just this opening sequence...
As the agent discovers the villain’s henchman and the disappearance of Radcliffe, we cut away outside to the disturbing sound of a train whistle heralding death... we then pan over to where the agent’s corpse has been left in a mail trolley. As the camera cuts to a closer shot of the dead agent, with his eyes almost filling the screen in a face tipped on its side, we hear a very cool and extended, mounting John Barry musical sting... followed by the sound of an alarm clock and the replacement of the dead agent’s eye with Harry Palmer’s eye, which we then slowly pan back from to see him at the same kind of angle.
And then... on top of all that... we have a point of view shot from Harry Palmer’s perspective as we look around his apartment and can’t see very much at all... why is it all a blur and out of focus? Because Furie is using this technique as a way of, almost subconsciously, introducing the concept of Harry Palmer’s (soon to be Michael Caine’s) trademark glasses. He puts his glasses on and then the point of view shot of Harry’s apartment is repeated... this time in clear focus. We then see Harry himself from the other side of the room as he gets out of bed and opens the curtains, with the alarm clock in foreground, which has been continuing on the soundtrack all this time. Then he comes towards the screen to hit the alarm clock off and as it stops... that’s when John Barry’s opening title music suddenly thunders in... absolutely gobsmacking stuff and we’re only a few minutes into the film.
And it doesn’t stop there... the whole film is loaded with absolutely clever stuff... including a repeat of the point of view/blurred focus shot much later on, but this time used in reverse as Harry cleans his glasses at a lecture, to highlight the fact that he is still being tailed by the Americans.
Another thing the director does, and somehow makes work brilliantly, occurs when Palmer first goes to see his boss, Colonel Ross (played brilliantly by Guy Doleman).
The scene starts out with Ross looking out of his office windows, feeding the pigeons, and not looking at Palmer, in order to establish his status within the conversation. We see some of the action of this sequence from the other side of the windows which Furie, brilliantly, uses to split portions of the screen so that when Palmer comes in on the other side of the room, he can interact with Ross and both are in the same shot at massively different sizes and each highlighted by different sets of rectangles... marvellous stuff. The scene goes on as Ross makes Palmer go back to shut the door and keep him waiting as much as possible... never once asking him to sit down. When the two characters talk, they are sometimes seen in reverse of each other on opposite parts of the screen as a small head, for example, on bottom left while the entire rest of the screen is black from being masked by the other character’s body. As the characters move about the room, they are seen talking from individual shots in contrasting sizes and angles but, because they are always speaking and looking towards the opposite side of the screen, the eye lines somehow still manage to match between shots and, with Hunt’s deft editing, it all works seamlessly as a conversation. Seriously, you may not notice it the first time around but, try watching it with the sound turned off on just a visual level (something I probably ought to do with it sometime) and you will probably fall off your seat with what the director is getting away with here. It’s just perfect.
He’s also setting the scene for some continuity later in the film - when Ross is seen at one point he is feeding ducks from the side of a bridge which is a nice character echo of him feeding the pigeons earlier in his office. More relevantly, when Ross takes Palmer over to meet his new boss “Dalby” (played so well by Nigel Greene), Dalby plays exactly the same 'office politics' games with Palmer, to the extent that some of the dialogue and shots are pretty much the same, to both show what’s going on and also to offer, perhaps, a slight criticism of the silly suits in power and their stupid games which, frankly, Palmer obviously has no respect or love of.
And later, when Furie shows another of a few meetings between Ross and Dalby, when Ross goes into Dalby’s office, he does so aggressively, taking the upper hand, not playing any of the same games and offering up one of the ultimate insults in office politics... invading the other man’s desk space with his hat, briefcase and umbrella. That probably doesn’t mean a lot to people in some countries and cultures, and perhaps not to the younger generation here in the UK, I shouldn’t wonder, but certainly British people of a certain generation (and definitely back then) will know what all those shenanigans are about.
There’s a lot in the details and focus of the movie and its probably quite rightly been said somewhere along the line, and certainly by me, that the film is fresh and believable because it takes the fantastic plots and chooses to highlight the little details of the hum drum and ‘everyman’ in a secret agent’s life... like always signing forms for a piece of equipment such as a firearm or a car... and making sure the report forms are filled in for each different action in an investigation. Stuff like that. However, even though we are looking at actors playing characters in a very believable and naturalistic manner... you can’t ignore the brilliance and dynamism of the way the shots and sounds... and even some of the dialogue... is put together.
More visual wonders would include things like highlighting an American agent who is tailing Palmer by giving him an even more ridiculous pair of glasses than the main lead (I had a pair of glasses like Palmer's for years, specifically because of this film, and haven’t really strayed too far from the style ever since) and someone has the bright idea of adding a white piece of tape down the middle of the bridge to suggest that they’ve been broken at sometime. However, what that trick with the piece of tape is really about is to make absolutely sure the audience establishes in their mind what the character in question is wearing on his face. Why? Because later, when Palmer accidentally shoots the American agent dead, Furie can shoot the aftermath in a much more creative manner. Once the agent is dead, we don’t see his face again, we see just his distinctive glasses lying on the floor to let us know who Palmer has really shot. This is followed by an absolute humdinger of a shot which is a shot from the ground, looking up through the lenses of those same glasses, to catch the reactions of Dalby and Palmer as they come into focus through the glasses. I’ll say it again... this stuff is absolutely amazing.
All the way through the film, Furie is doing stuff like this shot after visually rich shot. He uses Dutch angles constantly, uses surface colours and textures to split up frames within frames and a load of other clever things while, unbelievably, the footage all cuts together amazingly well and isn’t jarring and certainly never works against the naturalistic tone of the acting. And there’s more...
A shot down through a light fitting on the ceiling of Palmer’s apartment reveals, when the light is turned on, another dead American agent’s body. A fight between Grantby’s henchman and Palmer is filmed from a distance and from inside a classic, red British telephone box, the camera looking through the windows and into the distance as the fight between the protagonist and antagonist is split by the red verticals and horizontals of the booth. This is a far cry from some of the stuff which you see in, say, the average James Bond movie.
Also a far cry from James Bond is the prelude to an unseen sex scene between Jean, Ross’s agent working undercover in Dalby’s team and played by the wonderful Sue Lloyd, and Harry Palmer. It’s all brilliantly done by razor sharp dialogue and body language. After a meal that Harry Palmer has cooked for them, Sue Lloyd asks Caine “Do you always wear your glasses?” To which Caine replies, “Yes, except in bed.” With that, Sue Lloyd slowly removes Caines glasses and the suggestion of what’s about to happen, off camera, is pretty implicit and also very effective. This is pretty good stuff.
One thing I did catch on the dialogue on this viewing, though, was in a scene where Palmer is telling Dalby about another American agent. The sound looping is quite bad in that the words “American agent” suddenly don’t lip synch in on that portion of the sentence. I reckon the dialogue, recorded wild sound on the day, was replaced with a slightly different line, possibly due to some kind of censorship issue, and was fixed later on in the dub. Of course, I doubt if I’ll ever know the truth or not of that guess... but that’s my belief at any rate.
One more important thing to talk about here before I’m done with this review though and that is, of course, John Barry’s tremendous score. He’d already made a huge hit with the sound of spy music with the Bond films, when he reorchestrated Monty Norman’s original Bond theme (subsequently used all over Dr. No in places it wasn’t even rearranged for) and had gone on to build on that success with From Russia With Love, Goldfinger and, from the same year as The IPCRESS File, Thunderball. For this film he uses some of the same musical language but he makes it colder, edgier and also uses a cymbalom, which is similar in some respects to the zither played by Anton Karas in the score which inspired Barry for this one, The Third Man. What we get with The IPCRESS File, of course, is another heavily influential kind of more serious, cold war “spy sound” which would be copied stylistically time and time again.
Barry would build on this himself the following year when he scored the film adaptation of Adam Hall’s (Elleston Trevor’s pen name) novel The Berlin Memorandum. The first of the Quiller novels, this one would soon be retitled after the film adaptation and forever be known, in successive printings, as The Quiller Memorandum (review of this movie in a new Blu Ray transfer, coming soon to this blog). Both IPCRESS and Quiller have wonderful music and represent Barry at the absolute best of his flip side to Bond scoring... truly memorable (and immensely hummable) music.
And that’s about it for this review, I think. I’ve never had the opportunity to take any kind of film studies class in my life (hey, when I was a kid, if you wanted to be 'creative' you had the options of Woodwork, Metalwork or Art and that was it) but I would hope that tutors instructing future, inspired students these days make a point of putting The IPCRESS File on their syllabus. There is so much innovation and inventiveness in pretty much every minute of footage that a proper study of it would surely arm people with an inspired approach to the syntax of the motion picture. But the heck with that... it’s also one of the most enjoyable spy films of the mid-1960s and is an absolute classic that anyone worth their salt, who appreciates movies, will want to look at and enjoy. It deserves it’s status as one of the great British movies... which I assume it surely has... and people should not forget or underestimate this great film. If you’ve never seen it, the new Blu Ray transfer from Network is right up your street, loaded with the same extras as the old Anchor Bay US DVD and with a whole heap of other extras on top of that. Just buy it... you surely won’t regret it.