Michael Caine’s “The Ipcress File” is overdue for a 4K do-over, but don’t let 2K stop you
Updated: Jun 15, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Michael Caine is the unconventional spy Harry Palmer, one of the defining roles in his long and distinguished career, and Gordon Jackson is his fellow agent, Jock Carswell. They’ve been assigned to find a top British scientist.
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“THE IPCRESS FILE”
Blu-ray, 1965, unrated, mild espionage violence and innuendo
Best extra: A wonderful 2006 interview with star Michael Caine
FIRST THINGS first: Don’t buy this U.K. spy thriller because you think it’s been remastered in sparkling 4K for its first Stateside release in 21 years. It hasn’t; instead, Kino Lorber recycled the same 2K print (2.35:1 aspect ratio) that’s been circulating across the pond for at least a decade.
That doesn’t mean it’s unwatchable. And it’s not a deal-breaker, either.
Colors are solid throughout, detail, especially in the tight shots, is decent enough and the grain holds up most of the time. With a DTS-HD Master 5.1 surround upgrade or lossless 2.0 channel option, the audio does the job, too. Good thing: Composer John Barry (“Dances With Wolves,” “Out of Africa,” all those James Bond films) used the dulcimer-like cimbalon in setting the tone for his memorable score.
It’s just that “The Ipcress File,” a classic by any measure, deserves better.
(1&2) After the scientist, Dr. Radcliffe, is kidnapped, an impostor takes his place on the train and the body of the security guard is dumped at the station. (3) “The Ipcress File” premiered in January 1965. It was filmed in Techniscope, a less expensive widescreen format using two frames per standard 35mm frame. The results caused a slightly softer image and more grain. (4) Caine, who wears glasses in real life, wanted to wear them to play Harry so he could get away from the role when he took them off.
Based on the 1962 novel by Len Deighton, it launched Michael Caine’s career – any collection has to begin with “Ipcress,” “Zulu” (1964) and 1971’s “Get Carter” (avoid the 2000 Sylvester Stallone remake at all costs) – while flying in the face of what audiences had come to expect from British spy movies.
In 1965, while James Bond was in the Bahamas chasing down nuclear warheads in “Thunderball,” and squandering all the character-driven grit the franchise amassed with “Dr. No” (1962), “From Russia With Love” (1963) and “Goldfinger” (1964), Harry Palmer was pounding the pavement in London trying to find out who was kidnapping and brainwashing the country’s top scientists.
Harry, in short, was no 007, and that was the point, says Caine, who describes him as “an ordinary guy you wouldn’t look at twice in the street.” He speaks with a Cockney accent, wears dark-framed glasses, carries a government-issue revolver (no Walther PPK for him) and drives a blue Ford Zodiac from the motor pool. He lives in a nondescript flat, is an accomplished cook and grinds his own coffee.
He’s also pulling a surveillance shift in a grotty attic when he’s told by Col. Ross (Guy Doleman, “On the Beach”) that he’s being reassigned to Maj. Dalby (Nigel Green, so memorable as Colour-Sergeant Bourne in “Zulu”). Ross, who favors bowlers and the Dover sole at his club, also tells Palmer, whose past is somewhat checkered, that Dalby doesn’t have his sense of humor. Harry, with a straight face, replies, “Yes, sir. I will miss that, sir.”
(1) Harry meets Maj. Dalby (Nigel Green), head of the civil intelligence unit. (2) Forced to give up his automatic, Palmer is issued a Colt handgun. (3) Agent Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) has been told to keep tabs on Harry. (4) Dalby distributes the team’s assignment: Find Dr. Radcliffe.
Caine says one reason he loved the role was Harry’s insolence. “I was a private in the Army and was known as a barrack-room lawyer,” he says in the interview, which, at 20 minutes, is over too soon. “I had ideas about my station, which has continued throughout my life, and Harry definitely had ideas about his station.”
At any rate, Harry, no surprise, goes about the investigation his way and is soon sussing things out when, in Bond fashion, he’s nabbed by the bad guys in the penultimate reel. Before the credits roll, he learns that he’s been set up and has to make a life-or-death choice – not his, of course.
Extras include a new commentary with film historian Troy Howarth and filmmaker/author Daniel Kremer (“Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films”), radio shorts and trailers for “Ipcress” and other Kino-Lorber titles, but the 2006 Caine interview and 1998 laserdisc commentary with Furie, whose wide-ranging resume includes the Oscar-nominated “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972) and Rodney Dangerfield’s “Ladybugs” (1992), and editor Peter Hunt, who directed “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969), the second-best Bond film – “Russia” being No. 1 – are musts.
Caine was having lunch at a London restaurant when producer Harry Saltzman, who’d seen him in “Zulu,” asked him over to his table. He wanted to know if Caine had read Deighton’s book and whether he’d be keen on playing Palmer. Caine was halfway through it and yes, he would. They then had to come up with the character’s name (he didn’t have one in the novel). Saltzman said it had to be boring. With an apology, Caine suggested “Harry” and, remembering a boy he knew in school, “Palmer.”
And there you go. Now, about the glasses. Caine wore them naturally and wanted to in the movie for one reason. “I saw Sean (Connery) trying to get away from Bond. [I knew] the minute I take these off, I’m not Harry Palmer.”
(1) Code-named “Bluejay,” Eric Ashley Grantby (Frank Gatliff) is suspected of engineering the kidnapping and brainwashing scheme. (2&3) During a warehouse raid to find Dr. Radcliffe, Harry discovers a snippet of audiotape marked “Ipcress.” (4) Dalby and his men try to identify an odd noise on the tape. (5) Dalby and Harry meet with Bluejay to discuss an exchange for the doctor.
The Furie-Hunt commentary is also off-the-cuff fun. Saltzman, it seems, could be … let’s say, brusque. He was “a brilliant producer and dealmaker in many ways,” says Hunt, who worked with him on the early Bond movies, “but never understood films.” He also didn’t like the unconventional angles and lighting that Furie was using or that Palmer might be seen as effeminate. Saltzman appealed to Hunt, but Hunt saw what Furie was doing and told the director not to worry.
Furie won that round, but Saltzman banned him from the editing room – the final cut, Furie says, was Hunt’s – and tried to stop him from conferring with Barry. They got around that by meeting in a restaurant, where Barry hummed and tapped out the score-in-progress.
Furie got the last laugh, too. “The Ipcress File” won Bafta Awards for Best British Film, art direction (color) and cinematography (color), and was a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes – Saltzman barred Furie from the after-party – and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Directors Guild of America. Furie wasn’t even asked to direct the sequels, “Funeral in Berlin” (1966) and “Billion Dollar Brain” (1967).
And there’s no question that “Ipcress” punched Caine’s ticket: When Hunt showed an early edit to director Lewis Gilbert, he offered him the lead in “Alfie” (1966). Not that Caine could be blamed for having some initial misgivings. He remembers his driver telling him that “Ipcress” was a “load of crap” and Furie, on the first day of shooting, showing him what he thought of the script by burning it! Footnote: It was shot sequentially because the script was being rewritten on the fly.
And if Caine was heartened when Saltzman told him that he was putting his name above the title, well, it wasn’t because he thought that Caine was particularly good. “If I don’t think you’re a star,” he told him, “who the hell else will?”
We know how that turned out.
– Craig Shapiro
(1) Harry is ready when the team delivers 25,000 pounds for the British scientist. (2&3) Some days later, Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) stops mid-sentence, as if he’s been brainwashed, during an address to his colleagues. (4) A CIA agent is found dead in Palmer’s apartment.
Palmer is captured and subjected to Grantby’s brainwashing program, Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress – IPCRESS.