Spy thrillers were all the rage in the 1960s. James Oliver investigates the very best of them–Len Deighton's The Ipcress File, adapted for the silver screen starring Michael Caine as intelligence agent Harry Palmer.

In 1962, when the Berlin wall was still new and when a stand-off in Cuba brought the world to within touching distance of an apocalypse, cinema goers were introduced to a new character called James Bond.

His adventures proved an immediate success, which seems peculiar in hindsight: you might expect audiences to go to the pictures for escapism, yet here they were embracing adventures that took the horrors of the cold war and remixed them as entertainment.

 

An intrigue of spies

Sensing a new interest in spy stories, enterprising producers did what enterprising producers have always done and began churning out rip-offs. Some were good (In Like Flint), some bad (the Bulldog Drummond update Deadlier Than the Male) and some downright odd (Operation Kid Brother, aka OK Connery, in which Sean Connery’s younger brother Neil joins the family business with surprisingly enjoyable results.)

 

"It’s interesting to look back on an era where geo-political nightmares could be turned into entertainment"

 

The very best of them, though, was The Ipcress File. Taken from Len Deighton’s novels about an anonymous spy (christened Harry Palmer for the screen), it may have been inspired by the success of Bond but, shrewdly, it didn’t seek to imitate 007 too closely: Harry Palmer was more likely to take the bus than drive an Aston Martin.

It would, though, be stretching things to near-breaking point to describe it as ‘realistic’. Although we now realise what a dull, grinding affair the Cold War was, such things do not always make for exciting thrillers. So while The Ipcress File takes place under grey London cloud, its plot is as fanciful as any James Bond foiled.

We follow Palmer – “Insubordinate, insolent, a trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies,” as his  military file has it – as he takes up employment in a branch of military intelligence. A series of scientists have gone missing, presumably kidnapped by The Other Side and Palmer begins to suspect that someone in British Intelligence is assisting the enemy but who? And can they be stopped? Cue an adventure involving torture, brainwashing and surprising revelations.

 

"The Ipcress File endures as a classic and an essential example of Michael Caine when he was young and mutinous"

 

It was directed by Sidney J Furie in a blur of mad angles and wide, wide lenses. Less obvious, but perhaps more importantly, it was produced by a chap called Harry Saltzman. He had helped bring Bond to the screen, which is why he wanted to push things in such a different direction here. For instance, he recruited Bond composer John Barry but ordered something more spartan than the sweeping strings and power ballads that Barry was then best known for. The results – played mainly on a Hungarian instrument called a cymbalom – have been enormously influential (Orbital, for example, are big fans) and are still evocative, distilling panic and paranoia into a few notes.

 

When Harry met Michael

Saltzman’s most important decision was the casting. Palmer was meant to be an everyman and Saltzman didn’t want an actor from the officer class, then so common in British film. For a time, he favoured the Canadian Christopher Plummer but he took himself out of the running when he was offered The Sound of Music. That left the way forward for Michael Caine.

Michael Caine in Len Deighton's The Ipcress File

Caine is such a familiar figure now that it’s easy to forget just how thrilling he was in his early roles, when he seemed to be trying to tear down the British class system single handed. This was his first leading role using his native accent (he talked posh in Zulu) and he’s electric, a working class lad who doesn’t know his place, and doesn’t want to.  He’s the only leading man in any sixties spy flick to rival Neil Connery’s big brother for charisma.

 

An enduring classic

As he’d done with Bond, Saltzman undertook sequels, albeit without the participation of Sidney J Furie or John Barry. Their involvement was obviously more important than he realised as Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain are much less interesting films, never quite striking the right balance between the mundane and the unconventional that so distinguishes The Ipcress File.

While the later films are largely forgotten now, The Ipcress File endures as a classic and an essential example of Michael Caine when he was young and mutinous. Half-century on, it’s also interesting to look back on an era where geo-political nightmares could be turned into entertainment.

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