Spies Like Us: Harry Palmer, the Everyday Hero of ‘The Ipcress File’

The Ipcress File, both film adaptation by director Sidney J. Furie and producer Harry Saltzman, and the original debut novel by author Len Deighton, has come to be known as the prime example of “anti-Bond,” eschewing the glamorous world of Ian Fleming’s globe-trotting, high life loving gentleman spy, James Bond, for a grittier milieu, the grungy, bedsit-land smoggy London of the pre-swinging sixties. Deighton set out in his 1962 novel to write an authentic treatment of the daily grind of spying. In his interview in The Len Deighton Companion, the author told Edward Milward-Oliver, “There’s a style of writing known as a ‘Police Procedural,’ which I find very good and sound, and certainly works well against what we read in the newspapers. It has an authenticity, and you believe the author knows exactly how, for instance, the New York police operate, right down to the paperwork. It’s probably true to say that I had an instinctive desire to write a ‘Spy Procedural,’ and that’s probably what I still write today.” Harry Saltzman, the co-producer (with Cubby Broccoli) of the cinematic Bond, sat down on October 2, 1962, with Deighton at Pinewood Studios to discuss securing the film rights to Ipcress, which wasn’t even due to be printed until November 12. Bond’s first cinematic outing, Dr. No, had only just opened on the big screen. The impresario impressed upon the author, “I am the only person in the world who won’t try to make your working-class anti-hero into some kind of James Bond.” Rather than express any jealousy or disdain for the character (unnamed in the novel, christened Harry Palmer in the film), Fleming saw a kindred spirit in Deighton, and named The Ipcress File as his book of the year for 1962. The two authors met for lunch the following year, along with Raymond Hawkey, who designed the iconic book jacket. In the book For Bond Lovers Only edited by Sheldon Lane, Deighton recalled the meeting: “You were in intelligence yourself, weren’t you?” Mr. Fleming put the question across like an angry schoolmaster who has caught one of his schoolchildren dozing. “Yes, air intelligence,” admitted Deighton. “I guessed as much,” said Mr. Fleming, a look of satisfaction seeping over his face like a blush. “You get pretty near the knuckle in some parts, I must say. Anyway, I realized you knew what you were talking about—as indeed I do.”

No higher praise then—Fleming, author of “the spy novel to end all spy novels (Casino Royale),” and Harry Saltzman, the man who brought his spy in from cold print to Technicolor, gave the approval to unleash a new spy upon the world. But who would direct, and who could play this anti-establishment, classical music loving, gourmand on a budget, cockney charmer? Step forward young Canadian director Sidney J. Furie, and rising star Michael Caine, whose combined naturalistic style and presence here would blow the bloody doors off stuffy British cinema for years to come. Oh yes.

Harry Palmer, a British army sergeant sprung from the glass house to do boring surveillance duty from British Intelligence under the contemptuous Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), is then loaned to Major Dalby’s clandestine outfit to begin a new assignment, hidden behind the grimy facade of an employment agency. The lugubrious Dalby (Nigel Green), another stiff-assed martinet, is trying to recover a kidnapped Government scientist and find out why many ‘brains’ like him, outside of a better offer, are suddenly disappearing or unaccountably becoming unable to function. Harry eschews the daily field reports and other boring paraphernalia of the job (L101s, T104s, CC1, etc—a park bench dead drop and meeting site is designated by its brass plate—T108) to make contact with the agent Grantby/Bluejay (Frank Gatliff) responsible for the disappearances and negotiate a deal. But can he trust his bosses? And who is co-worker Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd), who shows up at his flat, toying with his unauthorized second firearm, actually working for—Dalby, or Ross? Why are American C.I.A. agents tailing Harry? And just what is the significance of the word IPCRESS, printed on recording tape with indecipherable electronic sound on it?

 
The budget of the film couldn’t accommodate the novel’s away trips to Beirut and Bikini Atoll, so the plot is completely set in London. Even a brainwashing attempt on Harry at the climax in Albania is just a partial ruse—he never leaves a London warehouse. Now, had Furie just directed this film as a straightforward A-Z procedural, it could have been quite, well, boring. But he, together with his brilliant editor Peter Hunt (like Bond stalwarts Saltzmann and composer John Barry, invaluable, we’ll discuss his contribution later) shook up the language of film to a mad degree to make us, the viewer, step firmly into Harry’s irreverent shoes as an outsider, bucking the system, and off-kilter in a paranoid world.

Of course, The Ipcress File wasn’t the first time anyone had used dutch angles or foregrounded objects in the frame, but it’s the brilliant way Furie does it, marrying technique to atmosphere and storytelling that elevates it to such a degree. So much so, that it is definitely one of the reasons why the BFI list Ipcress in their top 100 British films of all time. After seeing the film, Billy Wilder famously accused Furie of being unable to shoot a scene without framing it through a fireplace or the back of a refrigerator. He completely missed the point. Furie and his DoP Otto Heller (Peeping Tom) took advantage of the Techniscope format to “iris in” on selected parts of a frame without enlarging them in close up. The sheer variety of shots doesn’t make the viewer switch off in frustration or boredom, quite the reverse—there is always something going on, underpinning the central mystery and mind-games. We view the film as a half-glimpsed surveillance act ourselves. Story and technique, a Furie fusion of ideas. Los Angeles-based film editor Vashi Nedomansky covered precisely this aspect of The Ipcress File in a short video essay, THE IPCRESS FILE—100 Cinematic Shots. From his comments on his blog:

“Furie and Czech cinematographer Otto Heller redefined their visual vocabulary by deciding to shoot as much of the film as possible through obstructions or foreground objects. They did this on 100 separate shots.

In the past, a large foreground object usually meant it was the focus of the scene. Furie and Heller made every foreground object a ‘framing device’ that actively composed the shot. This technique was used to both reveal specific story elements on screen and also to visually express the claustrophobic and unsettling tone of the film. What could have been a gimmick (if used once or twice) instead became a creative cinematic tool that was used 100 times during the film.

In the video below, I have compiled all 100 instances where the ‘frame within the frame’ technique is used in The Ipcress File. Some are subtle and some are audacious.”

 
When shots aren’t extremely high-angled, low-angled or tilted, they’re framed through every kind of foreground obstruction imaginable: lamps, doors, telephones. One of my favorites is the wooden intray on Palmer’s desk almost blotting out the Fag Ash Lil secretary Alice dumping a load of paperwork on his desk. A studio mandated fight on steps near St Paul’s Cathedral, I believe, is shot at a distance through the segmented glass frames of a red public telephone box. Amusingly, Palmer tales time to remove his spectacles and place them neatly in his jacket breast pocket before stepping down to rejoin the fray.

After a pre-title sequence which cuts from a dead agent’s eye zooming out to Harry’s in bed in more or less the same position, we follow him around his flat as the theme plays over his morning routine, marking horses in the day’s races in his paper, cracking eggs single-handed (the close-up is Len Deighton’s, he basically taught Caine how to cook—his Observer “cookstrips” are torn out and pinned to Harry’s kitchen wall) and sleepily grinding coffee beans. Like the Bond films, an early example of product placement here—associate producer Charles Kasher had a vested interest in the model featured (foregrounded, naturally!). Sales of coffee beans in the UK quadrupled afterwards. This opening was almost directly copied a year later in the Paul Newman film Harper. During part of this routine the flat is blurred until Harry puts on his specs. Glasses feature later with a dead American—we view Ross and Dalby come upon the corpse via a ground level reflection through the dead agent’s disturbed lenses. “Do you always wear glasses?” Courtney asks at one point over the clink of whiskey tumblers. “Yes, except in bed,” Harry grins. She then removes them and you can guess the rest.

It’s not just the inventive framing though, it’s the production design and placement of the camera that tells you as much as you need to know about the characters and their place in the scheme of things. Ross and Dalby both have spare (in the empty sense) offices, and leave their doors open, keeping Harry waiting after he has crossed the floor to their cornered desk, before demanding he shut the door. Petty power games their insubordinate subordinate has no time for. Harry tilts his B107 service record around while Ross’s back is turned, feeding the pigeons at his window. After being seconded to Dolby’s outfit, he cheekily asks for a raise, to get that new infrared grill he fancies.

 
“You won’t have much time for cooking. Dalby *works* his men. And he doesn’t have my sense of humor,” Ross counters. “Yes, sir. I will miss that, sir,” Harry rejoinders wryly.

Ross has his own little power trip with Dalby, invading his space by placing his hat and briefcase on the other’s desk. Tetchily asking for progress on the “brain drain” situation, he refers to him as a “passed-over Major.” Little do these dinosaurs realize it, but their old boys’ club is rapidly on its way out.

The brainwashing element of the plot, foregrounded in the third act as Harry himself is kidnapped, arose from both Deighton and Saltzman. As per the BFI Infographic on the film, “Saltzman had a wartime role in PSYOPS. The Programming Box (into which Harry is subjected to a hypnotic barrage of noise and light) was also Saltzman’s idea, inspired by a report he read in LIFE magazine. The hyper-kinetic images projected on the walls and disorienting sounds pumped through hidden speakers evoke the ‘magic room’ described by Lajos Ruff in his widely reported 1956 testimony before the US Congress, in which he provided a graphic account of the interrogation methods he’d faced while imprisoned in Communist Hungary.” Another future Bond alumni, production designer Ken Adam, designed the box. “It just seemed natural to shut him in this box and project images onto the walls. It was also the most visual solution. Something the audience could see in action.” The DVD Savant review of the film draws an interesting parallel with the later Stargate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey, right down to the anguished tossing of the head to each side as the light and sound show invades the brain, suggesting perhaps this was in the back of Douglas Trumbull’s mind when he conceived the slit-scan process for that aspect of the film. I have scoured my copy of the making of the film by Taschen but can find no acknowledgment of any influence on it.

 
The Ipcress File went on to win won the BAFTA for Best British Film of 1965. It also won the BAFTA for Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction and Best British Actor. Saltzman hated what Furie had done with the film, however (he’d locked him out of the editing suite but the genius Hunt knew exactly what Furie wanted from the rushes). The producer even banned his director from attending the screening at Cannes. He also initially hated John Barry’s score. How can somebody have been so wrong about elements he brought to the table that were so right? I’ll finish with an appreciation of Barry’s jazzy Cold War groove. It underpins the mood and mystery of The Ipcress File, its main theme performed on the cimbalom, a stringed Hungarian instrument set on a sounding board and played with mallets, also familiar in later years from the group Portishead’s atmospheric Sour Times (1994). The use of this Eastern European instrument in a Cold War thriller harkens back to Anton Karras’ zither underscoring the mystery and tensions beneath the post-war bombed-out ruins of Vienna in Carol Reed’s The Third Man—the Karras score was one of Barry’s favorites. Jazzwise magazine rhapsodizes further:

“The cimbalom title theme comes with glissando flute counter riffs and an excellent muted trumpet jazz improv. The theme then typically goes through Barry’s subtle variation process utilizing an elegant, minimalistic palette of sound and instrumental color. The arrangements have a forensic precision that, next to the stylishly terse cinematography by Otto Heller, sets the tone of the film and fits perfectly with the furtive rhythms of the spy narrative.”

“We made The Ipcress File very cheaply, expecting, if we were lucky, to break even or make a little profit,” Caine told Playboy in 1967. “I thought it would be a rather specialised movie.” With this star-making turn, Palmer and Caine did get that pay rise, and all the infra-red grills they could desire. Oh yes.

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 
In the video above, director Sidney J. Furie and editor Peter Hunt discuss the history and production of The Ipcress File.

In the video below, Michael Caine’s first interview for American television, filmed during the summer of 1965 outside of his home in London. He and Merv Griffin talk about his new movie The Ipcress File and the definition of “Cockney.”

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Sidney J. Furie’s The Ipcress File. Photographed by George Courtney Ward © The Rank Organisation, Lowndes Productions Limited, Steven S.A. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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