The Ipcress File Masterfully Preserved On DVD

Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd. Directed by Sidney J. Furie. Aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (widescreen). Dolby Digital mono. 107 minutes. 1965. Anchor Bay DV10925. NR. $24.98.

More than three decades after the first bloom of James Bondage and the golden age of spy-movie spoofery, it's difficult to fully appreciate the initial impact of The Ipcress File. Back when most espionage adventures were tongue-in-cheeky trifles, filled with comic-book villains and shag-a-delic babes, producer Harry Saltzman—a co-producer of the 007 franchise!—had the audacity to try something a bit more serious. Mind you, not nearly as serious as The Spy Who Came in from Cold, but a lot graver and grayer than, say, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Much to the surprise of almost everyone involved, audiences accepted this dead-serious story about drab secret agents as—well, if not totally groovy, then arrestingly offbeat.

In a rigorously unglamorous, smaller-than-life role originally offered to Christopher Plummer—who decided to play the male lead in The Sound of Music instead—Michael Caine shot to unlikely but immediate stardom as Harry Palmer, a nondescript chap who just happens to work for British Intelligence. With his horn-rimmed glasses and poker-faced sarcasm, Caine's Palmer often seems more like a bored-to-tears civil servant than a licensed-to-kill superspy. He can dish out some rough stuff when it's absolutely necessary, but is most comfortably in his element when puttering about the kitchen in his cramped apartment. Even when he handles a gun, he gives the impression of someone who would much rather being doing something else somewhere else. And when he actually manages to lure a pliant beauty back to his place, she's the one who has to make the first move. "Do you always wear your glasses?" coos a co-worker (Sue Lloyd). "Yes," Palmer replies, "except in bed." So she removes his specs, and director Sidney J. Furie quickly cuts to another scene. (Hey, remember: This is 1965.)

It comes as no surprise when we're told that the remarkably unremarkable Palmer—who didn't even have a name in the Len Deighton novel that inspired The Ipcress File—isn't a spy by choice. Rather, he was cashiered out of the military for petty theft, and drafted into undercover service by the imperious Major Ross (Guy Doleman). Aptly described in his personnel file as "insubordinate, insolent, with possible criminal tendencies," he's mildly pleased by the possibility of a pay raise when he's transferred to a unit run by the far more imperious Dalby (Nigel Green). Unfortunately, the new job calls for Palmer to risk life and limb while tracking down bad guys who kidnap—and brainwash—leading scientists. Even more unfortunately, the bad guys decide to give Palmer's own gray cells a good scrubbing, in the hope that he'll assassinate one of his bothersome superiors.

Almost every aspect of The Ipcress File—from its unprepossessing hero and skittish camera movements to the forebodingly weird sound of the cimbalom in John Barry's musical score—is calculated to catch you off-guard. And if some scenes, like the hostage ransom in underground parking garage, strike you as overly familiar, keep in mind that people have been "borrowing" from Furie's movie for more than 30 years. "I didn't steal from anybody," the director insists on the audio commentary track. "There was nobody to steal from."

Michael Caine has been established as an above-the-title lead for so long, and has been so consistently terrific in movies good, bad, and indifferent, it's easy to forget that, back in 1965, it was exceedingly odd to encounter someone with his Cockney accent and pasty, unimposing physique as a movie hero. The beauty part of his performance here is that, even when Harry Palmer comes across as a snide, almost prissy underachiever, Caine still manages to convey a fair amount of steely authority. Palmer isn't, strictly speaking, heroic—actually, he's more anti-heroic than anything else—but he's by no means weak or ineffectual. Caine skillfully infuses the character with a sardonic wit, an unexpectedly keen intelligence, and an obvious capacity for violence. Lots of other actors have enjoyed overnight success and sustained long careers for doing much less.

This DVD edition of The Ipcress File masterfully preserves the widescreen compositions and eccentric camera angles that Sidney J. Furie used with such cunning skill. Very few of Furie's subsequent films are nearly so visually or dramatically intriguing. (It would be fair to give him credit for Lady Sings the Blues, The Boys in Company C, and Little Fauss and Big Halsey, and needlessly unkind to mention much else on his résumé.) Judging from his audio commentary on this DVD, however, he remains an extremely entertaining storyteller. Furie trades quips and recollections with Ipcress editor Peter Hunt—who also edited a few James Bond adventures and directed On Her Majesty's Secret Service—and a great deal of their bandying is laugh-out-loud funny.

More than once, Furie bluntly admits that he never could make sense of the convoluted plot. Some days, he simply delayed the start of shooting while he frantically rewrote the script. "I drank a lot of scotch in my coffee," Furie says, "and that allowed me to have the courage to make the changes." Hey, whatever works.