Saturday 15 December 2018

Movie Review: The Ipcress File (1965)

A spy drama and thriller, The Ipcress File is a more serious look at the genre and a moderately successful antidote to Bond frivolity.

In London, scientist Dr. Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) is kidnapped and his security detail killed. Intelligence officer Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is re-assigned by his commander Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) to the intelligence group under Major Dalby (Nigel Green) to identify Radcliffe's kidnappers and negotiate a ransom payment.

Palmer starts to work with fellow agent Carswell (Gordon Jackson) while flirting with agent Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd). He quickly locates the the chief suspect Eric Grantby (Frank Gatliff), a shadowy scientist himself, in possession of Radcliffe and willing to negotiate. A ransom deal is eventually struck but the mission becomes a lot more complicated when first CIA agents get in the way, the goods are damaged, and then Palmer himself becomes a pawn in a struggle involving torture and brain control techniques.

An adaptation of the Len Deighton book directed by Sidney J. Furie, The Ipcress File is produced by Harry Saltzman, who with Albert R. Broccoli co-produced the James Bond movies of the era. Here Saltzman goes looking for the gimmick-free and glamourless counterpoint, and finds a British intelligence service beset by dueling bureaucrats operating out of nondescript buildings and attached to old school by-the-book and fruitless methods of investigation.

Palmer's service history is chequered and he is brought onto the case by Colonel Ross specifically because of his independent anti-authoritarian streak. Michael Caine grabs his breakout role by the blocky eyeglasses to create an intelligent and marginally rebellious agent reflecting the change shaking London's society. Palmer makes mistakes, manages to embarrass himself and his superiors more than once, and falls into a merciless trap, but has the dogged determination to stay with the case and serve the cause.

Recognizing that the material is more cerebral than kinetic, Sidney J. Furie directs with panache. Almost every frame of The Ipcress File features clever staging, Furie twisting, tilting and turning his cameras to find odd angles, semi-opaque obstacles, and engaging perspectives. When bullets and limbs start flying, Furie often allows the action to unfold just to the side or slightly in the background, creating offhanded energy.

The film's second half goes to dark places and loses momentum. Palmer goes from hunter to hunted and insufficient definition is created around the unfolding conspiracy to hold the film together. The schemers remain faceless and charmless, their plot muddled and barely coherent, all leading to a clearly contrived climax.

Finding pockets of air in dour and downbeat surroundings, The Ipcress File pumps life into a dingy but still deadly intelligence world.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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