Grade: B/B-
Spy drama-thriller
Not rated (would be PG)

The Ipcress File was produced by Harry Saltzman, a name familiar to Bond fans because it was Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli who gave us Dr. No, Goldfinger, and Thunderball. But don’t approach this one thinking it’s a cousin to the slightly campy and always sexy James Bond adventures. The Ipcress File has more in common with The Manchurian Candidate (1962), because it offers a more realistic view of spies and also prominently features brainwashing—a term credited to Edward Hunter, who in 1950 wrote about mind-control techniques that China used on American prisoners of war.

By “a more realistic view of spies” I mean that there are no exotic locations, no scantily clad women willing to do anything for their country, and no physical conflict, really, until we’re some 30 minutes into the film. Before that there’s a little sleuthing and surveillance and a lot of trying to find one’s place in a new post of assignment.

Based on Len Deighton’s novel, which came out the same year as The Manchurian Candidate, this 1965 film is rated #59 on the BFI list of 100 greatest British films. Instead of the peppy and campy action in the Bond films, Saltzman and director Sidney J. Furie (Iron Eagle, The Appaloosa) chose to play it low-key, concentrating instead of unique shots and camera angles to keep viewers interested.

Harry Palmer (a young Michael Caine) is assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings of leading scientists who turn up eventually with their minds completely erased. Somewhere along the way Palmer finds a clue—the word “Ipcress”—and it leads him through a tangled web of deceit, double agents, and spies keeping tabs on other spies. The latter, in fact, was something that Ian Fleming described as commonplace in the early days of Cold War spying, and it feels authentic here. But as a result of all this truth-in-spying, the pace is considerably slower than a Bond film. Takes and scenes are longer as if to suggest real time.

There’s also far less sex and violence in The Ipcress File than there was in the Bond films. Bond liked his women taken, not stirred, but Palmer is just fine with relationships staying in the subtle Flirt Zone. Instead of “cooking” with a woman, he cooks for her while sipping plain whiskey and enjoying Mozart. It’s all very civilized, with the first shooting occurring an hour into the film. In other words, there’s more cloak than dagger in The Ipcress File. We don’t even know exactly what the former British Army sergeant did to earn him a suspicious past, or how he came to work for the Ministry of Defence in the first place. “My name isn’t Harry, but in this business it’s hard to remember whether it had ever been,” says Palmer, who doesn’t know why he’s being suddenly transferred to a section headed by a Major Dalby (Nigel Green). But he finds himself as a replacement for the dead security escort of the most recently kidnapped scientist. Recover him, he’s told, and retrieve the device he was carrying. Suspects abound, because in this Cold War atmosphere you don’t know who to trust.

The Bond films focused on storytelling, with nothing fancy in the camerawork department, but The Ipcress File comes at every scene with a unique shot sequence—like a dead man on the floor that’s seen through a ceiling fixture from a crane shot, or over-the-body shots that block out all but a small portion of the character we see, or narrow shots that squeeze the frame in a way that’s slightly symbolic of what’s happening in the plot. It’s all very stylish with a lot of low-angle and canted shots, though, again, the slower pace and realistic rather than romantic treatment might turn off some contemporary viewers. When it was first released, Variety went so far as to call The Ipcress File an “anti-Bond” film because of its less glamorous treatment of espionage.

Set and partially filmed in London, The Ipcress File won a BAFTA for Best British Film, and the Mystery Writers of America recognized Bill Canaway and James Doran with an Edgar Award for Best Foreign Film Screenplay. The film was also popular enough to spark two sequels, Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). But does it hold up today? Yes, for Caine’s performance, the realistic portrayal of espionage, and the interesting camerawork; no, for the pacing that might cause younger or less patient family members to get the sudden urge to multitask.

Entire family: No (younger members would be bored)
Run time: 109 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: Kino Lorber (Universal)
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 5.1
Bonus features: B
Best Buy link
Not rated (would be PG for violence and adult situations)

Language: 0/10—Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t notice anything vulgar in the language at all

Sex: 1/10—A man and woman kiss while in bed, that’s basically it, though the main character considers himself a womanizer

Violence: 4/10—Pretty tame, with a fistfight, a couple of shootings, some corpses shown after off-screen violence, and some mind control “torture”

Adult situations: 4/10—Whiskey for two, and that’s about it

Takeaway: The Manchurian Candidate is the better brainwashing film because the stakes are higher and the tension more palpable, but The Ipcress File has its own distinctive neo-noir style and also does a good job of evoking the Cold War spy scene