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Michael Caine as Harry Palmer
in Funeral in Berlin
|First appearance||Book: The IPCRESS File (1962)
Film: The Ipcress File (1965)
|Last appearance||Book: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976)
Film: Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996)
|Created by||Len Deighton|
|Portrayed by||Michael Caine|
Harry Palmer is the protagonist of a number of films based on the unnamed main character from the spy novels written by Len Deighton. Michael Caine played Harry Palmer in three films based on the four published novels featuring this character, and also later in two films not based on Len Deighton's novels.
Origin of the 'Harry Palmer' name
When developing the movie, The Ipcress File, based on Len Deighton's novel of the same name, the production team needed a name for the previously anonymous secret agent protagonist, they chose "Harry Palmer", because they wanted a dull, unglamorous name to distance him from Ian Fleming's James Bond, the stereotypical flamboyant, swashbuckling spy. In his memoirs, Michael Caine says producer Harry Saltzman thought up the surname "Palmer", and Caine innocently remarked that "Harry" was a dull name, not realising his gaffe until seeing Saltzman's stare. In a Len Feldman interview, Caine recalled "I made a rather bad social blunder, because, he said, 'What's the dullest name you can think of ?', and I said, 'Harry', and he said, 'Thanks very much.' And then he said, 'What's a dull surname ?', and the most boring boy in our school was called: 'Palmer', 'Tommy Palmer'. So, he said, 'All right, we'll call him Harry Palmer.'"
This coincidentally meshed with the protagonist in the books being referred to as "Harry" by another character, although he clearly states this is not his real name. However, the ambiguity this creates between the two versions, while coincidental, is in keeping with the nature of the character and Deighton's theme of agents losing sight of their original lives. It is never made clear if the book protagonist had ever used the name and forgotten his old alias (or former life), or if the film protagonist is using an assumed name to distance himself from his former illegal activities. Either, or both, are possible.
|The IPCRESS File (1962)||The Ipcress File (1965)||Michael Caine|
|Horse Under Water (1963)||Not adapted to film|
|Funeral in Berlin (1964)||Funeral in Berlin (1966)||Michael Caine|
|Billion-Dollar Brain (1966)||Billion Dollar Brain (1967)||Michael Caine|
|Spy Story (1974)||Spy Story (1976)||Michael Petrovitch||character is renamed 'Patrick Armstrong'|
|Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (1976)||Known as Catch A Falling Spy in North America
Not adapted to film
|Bullet to Beijing (1995)||Michael Caine||Not based on a Len Deighton novel|
|Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996)||Michael Caine||Not based on a Len Deighton novel|
Len Deighton introduced the lead character in The IPCRESS File, his first novel, published in November 1962. In that first-person novel, the secret agent is anonymous, although at one point in he is greeted by someone saying "Hello, Harry"; he later says, "Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been." Deighton's spy is described as working class, living in a back street flat and seedy hotels, and shopping in supermarkets. He wears glasses, is hindered by bureaucracy, and craves a pay raise.
Further novels featuring this character followed: Horse Under Water (1963), Funeral in Berlin (1964), and Billion-Dollar Brain (1966). Again however the lead protagonist is never named, although they are clearly the same character in all of the books.
Later novels and discrepancies
In 1974, the novel Spy Story was published, followed in 1976 by Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (also known as Catch A Falling Spy in North America). As the protagonist also remains anonymous in both of these novels, it is open to debate whether or not 'Harry Palmer' is the same narrator of these last two novels as in the earlier books. There is conflicting evidence for either view. Despite this, and despite the lead protagonist being unnamed, all six books have been unofficially called the Harry Palmer novels, based on the protagonist's name given in the subsequent film adaptations of The IPCRESS File and its sequels.
Evidence for this narrator being different from the earlier novels comes from Deighton himself, who is quoted as saying that the narrator of Spy Story is not the same character as the narrator of The IPCRESS File; in fact, for most of Spy Story, the narrator is named and addressed as "Patrick Armstrong" - although, as another character says, "We have so many different names." Additionally, he is reported to be in his late 30s, whereas the narrator of The IPCRESS File was born in 1922 or 1923 (making him in his 40s), and thus implying that this protagonist is different from that of the earlier novels.
Encouraging the unitary concept - that the later novels feature 'Harry Palmer' - is the 1974 dust jacket to the Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich American edition of Spy Story, in which the cover blurb states, "He is back, after five long-years' absence, the insubordinate, decent, bespectacled English spy who fought, fumbled, and survived his outrageous way through the best-selling Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin, and the rest of those marvellous, celebrated Len Deighton spy thrillers." Likewise, on the 1976 edition dust jacket to Catch a Falling Spy, the novel features "Deighton's familiar hero, our bespectacled Englishman". A number of minor characters from the earlier novels also appear in Spy Story, further connecting the books.
A related novel by Deighton, Yesterday's Spy (1975), also features some of the same characters that appeared in Spy Story, although 'Harry Palmer' is not apparently amongst them. It has been theorised[who?] that the protagonist in another of Deighton's spy novels, An Expensive Place to Die (1967), also written in the first-person-anonymous narrative, is also 'Harry Palmer'; however, differences in characterisation and plotting indicate this is someone else other than Palmer.
The IPCRESS File
The IPCRESS File novel came out just after the release of the first James Bond film Dr. No (1962). When the novel sold well, Eon producers Harry Saltzman and Albert Broccoli approached Deighton to write the script for the next 007 film, From Russia With Love (1963); despite Deighton's efforts, little of his screenplay was filmed. Saltzman instead decided to use The IPCRESS File and its sequels as the beginning of a new secret agent movie series. Unlike the Bond films, The IPCRESS File was designed to have a different, more down-beat style, although Saltzman employed many Bond movie staff, including production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, and composer John Barry. Michael Caine was chosen to play the lead.
In the film version, Harry Palmer is a British army sergeant forcibly drafted into the security services to work away a prison sentence for black marketeering. He worked first for Army Intelligence, then the Foreign Office. He works for the brilliant but slightly duplicitous Colonel Ross. Harry Palmer has much in common with Deighton, including passions for military history (Harvey Newbegin complains about his bookshelf contents in Billion Dollar Brain), cooking, and classical music.
After the release of The IPCRESS File in 1965, Saltzman's production company made Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967), both starring Michael Caine. The second Harry Palmer novel Horse Under Water was not used. In 1976, Deighton's novel Spy Story was filmed with Michael Petrovitch as 'Patrick Armstrong'; it is unrelated to Saltzman's Harry Palmer films.
In the mid-1990s there appeared two Harry Palmer films with original screenplays and starring Michael Caine: Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996). Despite sometimes being titled Len Deighton's Bullet to Beijing and Len Deighton's Midnight in St Petersburg, Len Deighton did not participate in these films.
Evidence of Michael Caine's popular identification as Harry Palmer can be seen in movies such as Blue Ice (1992), where he plays an ex-spy named 'Harry', and who has many similarities to Harry Palmer.
In Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014), Caine portrays the bespectacled head of a secret espionage unit.
- Deighton, Len (1982). The IPCRESS File. Ballantine. p. 31. ISBN 0-345-30453-5.
- Deighton, Len (1974). Spy Story. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 127. ISBN 0-15-184838-6. "... he turned for a better view of me,... late thirties, spectacles, clean shaven, dark hair, about six foot..."
- The IPCRESS File, p. 25. "For example; take the time my picture appeared in The Burnley Daily Gazette in July 1939, when I won the fifth form mathematics prize"