If you’ve never watched the film The Ipcress File, I want to persuade you that you should. If you have seen it, I’ll try to convince you to watch it again.
The Ipcress File is simply one of the best films ever made. From John Barry’s mesmerising music to the boyish Michael Caine giving one of his best performances ever, the film is packed with extraordinary talent. Super-confident in its direction, it never once puts a foot wrong. This is a film that succeeds both as a period piece, beautifully capturing and distilling 1960’s London, and as a cutting edge work of art that probably wouldn’t be filmed any differently if it were made today.
Based on Len Deighton’s 1962 novel and filmed at the height of the Cold War, the Ipcress File is a British film and is very British in its setting and outlook. The film captures both the stuffy old Britain with its old-boy networks, gentleman’s clubs and bowler hats and an exhilarating new world of youth, sex, fashion and cooking!
Without giving anything away, I can tell you that the story centres around cheeky and insubordinate Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) who accidentally finds himself working for British Intelligence. Key scientists are disappearing and Palmer’s boss wants to find out why. On the way to discovering the truth, Palmer will encounter good guys, bad guys, foreign agents, great coffee, gourmet food and a touch of romance.
The plot is complex enough to be satisfying and there are plenty of surprises and twists and turns in store. Yet it isn’t too complex to be followed. Deighton never allows the plot to intrude on the narrative or the characters, unlike so many inferior plot-driven films. Perhaps one of the greatest aspects of the film is that you can re-watch it even if you remember what happens, and enjoy it even more on a second or third viewing.
There’s humour here (both visual and verbal), romance, style and thrills. If that makes it sound like a Bond film, it isn’t Harry Palmer is completely unlike James Bond. He’s working class, has no respect for authority and is in touch with his female side. He’s no hero, but he’s believably human.
The cinematography is impeccable, with an almost monochromatic vision of central London studded with bright splashes of red double decker buses, pillar boxes and telephone kiosks. It’s a film that you could almost watch with the sound turned off (although that would be a tragedy, as you’d miss Barry’s haunting music and Caine’s dry South London wisecracks.) In fact, there are whole sequences where no-one speaks and instead the camera tells the story, switching viewpoints, homing in on facial expressions, pulling back to view the staged scene from a distance. And then from another angle to reveal something new. It’s visual narrative at its best. Fabulous.
I think it’s the best espionage film ever, on a par with The Bourne Identity. And like the Bourne Identity, if you enjoy the first film you can collect the trilogy and watch Michael Caine continue his adventures in Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain.
Have I convinced you to watch it yet? Don’t be put off by how old the film is. Although it was filmed in 1962, it could have been made today. Don’t worry if you don’t like thrillers or action films. This isn’t an action film at all, and it isn’t plot-driven either, despite having one of the tightest narratives ever. It’s just a brilliantly stylish and consummately made British film with an extraordinary performance by one of our greatest actors. Go watch it!