Saturday 5 October 2013

Sour times… The Ipcress File (1965)

There was a moment listening to John Barry’s splendidly expressive and inventive score to The Ipcress File, when I realised that Portishead had sampled it or at least borrowed its sound and spirit.

I shouldn’t be surprised as the downbeat disconnections of Sidney J. Furie’s, distinctly un-swinging, 60’s spy film fit perfectly with the off-kilter beats of the Bristol miserablists (well… they are splendidly thoughtful). As with Portishead, this film looks for the more difficult narratives that often lurk just out of sight. It’s the height of the 60s, spies are cool, they have gadgets, girls and guns but they also have mundane sadness, confusion and everyday betrayals alongside the quirks and cruelties of the trade.

A modern spy...

Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer was created not so much as the anti-Bond but his more believable cousin. Harry has a way with the ladies, is pretty smart but he isn’t that polished: things happen to him and he reacts… Harry’s just about keeping up whereas James’ is always one step ahead.

Michael Caine makes for the perfect screen Palmer, a former criminal who now makes real coffee and cooks cordon bleu in the kitchen of his small flat in Formosa Street, Maida Vale. Harry’s game involves lots of investigation and patience – it’s a proper procedural with even the more obviously-dramatic moments down-played in a way that makes them somehow more credible. His gambles don’t always pay off in the boys own way of Bond, but he’s a non-conformist and his rough-edged intuition may just be what can save the day.

Michael Caine and Nigel Green

The film’s backdrop is the grime of a car-choked London barely recovered from the Luftwaffe’s beating… not a yacht in sight, but all the better for it.

At the film’s start, Harry is lifted from slow-moving surveillance to help investigate the mysterious disappearance of a British scientist. There’s an abnormal brain drain with a succession of leading British boffins packing it in for unknown reasons and this is just the latest in a series of unfortunate events.

Officer's club: Nigel Green and Guy Doleman
Harry is regarded with scorn by true blue Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) who gladly hands him over to Major Dalby (Nigel Green) who seems less than thrilled. It’s not a red letter day for Harry either as there’s only the promise of a small pay rise to go with this change of duty.

Harry meets his new team who include Carswell (Gordon Jackson) and Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) - Furie’s direction is so downbeat and knowing he’s not going to signal any obvious intentions with these or any other characters. Never-the-less, Carswell quickly becomes and ally for Harry whilst Jean responds to his less than suave overtures to come to his flat for dinner.

Sue Lloyd
Clearly, nothing is that clear and you really can’t trust anyone in this business or rather, can’t really be sure of who not to trust. And through all of this there’s an undercurrent of class prejudice as the natural officers struggle to impose themselves on the uppity rank and file.

Harry gradually begins to make headway, locating one of the likely kidnappers, Grantby - codenamed Bluejay (Frank Gatliff), and his lieutenant Housemartin (Oliver MacGreevy).  He follows Grantby into a library near the Albert Hall (The Science Museum Library) and calls a number Grantby given which proves to be false. The camera is close-up on Harry’s face but as he leaves the phone box, the camera view remains through the windows as Harry engages Housemartin in hand-to-hand combat. It’s typical of the film’s understated edge and we see that Palmer can handle himself, even though the birds manage to fly away…

Harry's eye-view
Playing a hunch, Harry orders a raid on a warehouse but finds nothing other than a strange tape… it’s scant consolation but buys him a little time. Played back the tape emits atonal noise and it’s unclear what this means… on it is written the word Ipcress.

Eventually Dr Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards) is returned in exchange for a payment but in the chaos immediately after the swap; Harry succeeds in shooting an American spy…

 Things speed up as Radcliff turns out to have been brain-washed and cannot function as a scientist. Then Caldwell makes the connection that will explain what Ipcress really means and people start dying, from another American sent to spy on Harry to Caldwell himself who is shot waiting at traffic lights in a very grimy Upper Thames Street…

Dirty old town
Harry realises he is being set up and following Dalby’s advice to make himself scarce, boards a train for Paris… but the enemy, whoever they may be, are already ahead of him.

Up till this point the film plays its cards reasonably close to its chest and is a novelty of surprises set against Bond-ian preconceptions. The closing third of the film sees a shift towards more typical action albeit with the focus firmly on the psychological…with a twist or two I won’t reveal. Harry has to pull himself together against all odds… to decide who to trust and, in the end, who to kill.

It’s all done grubbily well and Caine is, of course, superb: an actor who always holds enough back to pull the watcher in – he’s that uncertain hero we all hope to be. Nigel Green is another performer who smuggles a lot of meaning under an intense gaze and snarling stiff upper lip as does Guy Doleman albeit with rather more disdain.

Barry’s score flavours the film with enigmatic flourishes that takes turns in revealing narrative intentions with the actors, from Harry’s early morning coffee grinding to more clearly dramatic moments. He must have enjoyed the chance to show more compositional subtlety.

His score also works well with Furie’s angular direction and Otto Heller’s cinematography: through low and off-kilter angles, they create a world of disquiet even in the sparse, emotionally-empty rooms of the secret service. These high ceiling-ed imperial left-overs reflect the under-funded and shabby British service, still recovering from the War twenty years before. In the corner next to Colonel Ross’ desk, is a rickety camp-bed: needs must…it's one of the film's many telling details.

Dusty verdict: There’s a shift in Barry’s score during the meeting with Granby, when questing flute themes are pierced by the spidery sound of piano strings being plucked, the brass section builds the tension and then suddenly there’s a pause, deep piano chords and an eerie distorted guitar line repeats and repeats sending shivers of dread anticipation through the viewer… something is very wrong.

Gordon Jackson and Michael Caine
No Aston Martins but at least Major Dalby drives and MG

1 comment:

  1. The original choice for 'Harry Palmer' was Harry H Corbett. People forget what a fine classical/dramatic actor he was.