Every Sunday, we’ll be looking at the Harry Palmer series of novels (in which the character doesn’t actually have a name), their author — Len Deighton, the films based on them, the star of those films — Michael Caine, and the television movies that followed, and giving my thoughts on all I encounter. I’ll inevitably be drawing heavily on the collection of Kees Stam, author of The Harry Palmer Movie Site, and Rob Mallows, creator of the Deighton Dossier, and other odds and ends that I’ve turned up over the years.
It doesn’t take a detective to figure out Harry Saltzman’s game and to calculate what’s brewing in his British spy film, The IPCRESS File.
Having picked up a tidy packet as coproducer of the James Bond films and having found what appears to be a booming market for pictures about daredevil sleuths (vide Jean-Paul Belmondo’s as well as Sean Connery’s), he is obviously trying to start another with a good-looking chap named Michael Caine in this double-o-sevenish picture, which came to the Coronet yesterday.
And in one respect he has succeeded. He has built up the proper atmosphere in which a daredevil-challenging mystery might conceivably occur and a dauntless and daring detective might acceptably take wing.
His Techniscope setting of London, in which this espionage thriller takes place, is full of rich and mellow colors and highly official goings-on behind dark-paneled doors in old, gray buildings and in cozy bachelor digs and gentlemen’s clubs.
An air of mystery and menace to the very balance of scientific power seems to surround the pressing problem Civil Intelligence has to solve regarding the curious kidnapping and brainwashing—or braindraining, as they call it—of a slew of distinguished scientists. And the chaps who have to solve it seem eminently qualified.
There’s Dalby, chief of Civil Intelligence, a bristly-mustached, guardsman type, quivering with efficiency and sarcasm as played by Nigel Green. There’s Ross, chief of Military Intelligence, who has curiously passed the buck, and, in Guy Doleman’s slippery portrayal, seems not quite worthy of trust.
There’s Carswell, the canny Scot analyst who assembles the IPCRESS file and is strangely bumped off shortly after. Gordon Jackson performs well in the role.
And, finally, there’s Harry Palmer, the key sleuth, played by Mr. Caine, not to mention several lesser secret agents, including one strange, incongruous girl.
Yes, there’s everything here to charge the large screen with the toniest spy-film atmosphere, and the director, Sidney J. Furie, has added to it with his flashy camera style.
Fast, fluid, candid shooting; startling close-ups of telephones, traffic lights, train wheels; eyes and faces seen through slits in doors make for sheer physical excitement and a feeling of things happening. The IPCRESS File is as classy a spy film as you could ask to see.
But somehow Len Deighton’s story of this running down of a gang of scientist body-snatchers gets confusingly out of hand as it tumbles and swirls in the direction of a gadgeted sweatbox in which the hero’s mental reflexes are relentlessly conditioned under stress.
Suspense and even attention are allowed to lag by the script, which Bill Canaway and James Doran have written. There are too many yawning holes in it.
And for all Mr. Caine’s casual manner—for all his scholarly and amiable air—he just doesn’t ooze the magnetism that would make him an irresistible sleuth. He is simply too much of an esthete. He loves Mozart, cooking, and books as much as he loves—well, temptation of the sort introduced by Sue Lloyd.
There may be a place in the affections of some filmgoers for a genteel cop—for one who can cook up a stew as well as a turmoil. But this one will never take the place of Bond.
This review first appeared on the Mister 8 website on August 2009.