The Ipcress File (film)

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The Ipcress File
Ipcress File British quad poster.jpg
Original British 1965 quad film poster
Directed bySidney J. Furie
Produced byHarry Saltzman
Screenplay byBill Canaway
James Doran
Based onThe IPCRESS File
by Len Deighton
Music byJohn Barry
CinematographyOtto Heller
Edited byPeter R. Hunt
Distributed byRank Film Distributors
Release date
  • 18 March 1965 (1965-03-18) (UK)
Running time
109 minutes
CountryUnited Kingdom

The Ipcress File is a 1965 British espionage film directed by Sidney J. Furie and starring Michael Caine. The screenplay, by Bill Canaway and James Doran, was based on Len Deighton's novel The IPCRESS File (1962). It received a BAFTA award for the Best British film released in 1965. In 1999, it was included at number 59 on the BFI list of the 100 best British films of the 20th century.

This film and its sequels were a deliberately downbeat alternative to the hugely successful James Bond films, even though one of the Bond producers, Harry Saltzman, was involved with the Harry Palmer series, along with other personnel who had been contracted to work on one or more of the 007 movies.


A scientist called Radcliffe is kidnapped from a train and his security escort killed. Harry Palmer, a British Army sergeant with a criminal past, now working for a Ministry of Defence organisation, is summoned by his superior, Colonel Ross, and transferred to a section headed by Major Dalby. Ross suspects that Radcliffe's disappearance is connected to the fact that sixteen other top British scientists have inexplicably left their jobs at the peak of their careers. He threatens Dalby that his group will go if Radcliffe cannot be recovered. Palmer is then introduced as a replacement for the dead security escort.

Afterwards, Dalby briefs his agents that the main suspect is Eric Grantby and his chief of staff, codenamed "Housemartin", and tells the team to find out where they are at present. Palmer is also introduced and befriends Jock Carswell. Using a Scotland Yard contact, Palmer locates Grantby but, when Palmer tries to stop Grantby getting away, he is attacked by Housemartin.

Housemartin is arrested later but, before he can be questioned, he is killed by men impersonating Palmer and Carswell. Suspecting that Radcliffe is being held in a certain disused factory, Palmer orders a search, but nothing is found except a piece of audiotape marked "IPCRESS" that produces meaningless noise when played. Dalby then points out that the paper on which Grantby had written a false phone number is the programme for an upcoming military band concert. There they encounter Grantby and a deal is struck for Radcliffe's return.

The exchange goes as planned but, as they are leaving, Palmer shoots a man in the shadows who turns out to be a CIA agent. Subsequently, another CIA operative threatens to kill Palmer if he discovers that the death was not a mistake. Some days later, it becomes clear that while Radcliffe is physically unharmed, his mind has been affected and he can no longer function as a scientist. Carswell has discovered a book titled "Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress" – IPCRESS – which he believes explains what has happened to Radcliffe and the other scientists. Carswell borrows Palmer's car to test his theory on Radcliffe, but is shot before reaching him.

Believing that he himself must have been the intended target, Palmer goes home to collect his belongings and there discovers the body of the second CIA agent. When he returns to the office, the IPCRESS file is missing from his desk. Ross had previously asked him to microfilm the file and Palmer now believes that he is being set up. When he informs Dalby what has happened and that he suspects Ross, Dalby tells him to leave town for a while.

On the train to Paris, Palmer is kidnapped and wakes up imprisoned in a cell in Albania. After several days without sleep, food and warmth, Grantby reveals himself as his kidnapper. Having previously read the file, Palmer realises that they are preparing to brainwash him. He uses pain to distract himself, but after many sessions under stress from disorientating images and loud electronic sounds, he succumbs. Grantby then instills a trigger phrase that will make Palmer follow any commands given to him.

Palmer eventually manages to escape and discovers that he is really still in London. He phones Dalby, who is in Grantby's company at the time. Dalby uses the trigger phrase and gets Palmer to call Ross to the warehouse where he had been held. As Dalby and Ross arrive, Palmer holds them both at gunpoint. Dalby accuses Ross of killing Carswell; Ross tells Palmer that he had been suspicious of Dalby and was investigating him.

Dalby now uses the trigger phrase again and tells Palmer to "Shoot the traitor now". As Palmer wavers, his hand strikes against a piece of equipment and the pain reminds him of his conditioning. Dalby goes for his gun and Palmer shoots him. Ross then remarks that, in choosing Palmer for the assignment, he had hoped that Palmer's tendency to insubordination would be useful. When Palmer reproaches Ross for endangering him, he is told that this is what he is paid for.




Harry Saltzman wanted The Ipcress File to be an ironic and downbeat alternative to the portrayal of espionage in Ian Fleming's novels about the spy James Bond and the film series which followed from them.[2][3] Saltzman, who produced this film, was one of the producers of the early Bond films. Among other crew members who worked on The Ipcress File and had also worked on the Bond films up to this point were the production designer Ken Adam, the film editor Peter Hunt and the film score composer John Barry.[3]

The Ipcress File became the first of the nominally rival Harry Palmer film series and some aspects are reminiscent of film noir. In contrast to Bond's public school background and playboy lifestyle, Palmer is a working class Londoner who lives in a Notting Hill bedsit and has to put up with red tape and inter-departmental rivalries. The action is set entirely in "a gritty, gloomy, decidedly non-swinging" London with humdrum locations.[4]


Harry Saltzman gave Jimmy Sangster a copy of the novel to read. Sangster enjoyed the book and was eager to adapt the novel, suggesting Michael Caine to play the main role and Sidney J. Furie as director. However, Saltzman would not commit to the timeframe that Sangster insisted upon.[5] Ken Hughes wrote a script which Saltzman rejected.[6]

Sangster embellished Deighton's protagonist by removing the ambiguity of the novel. Only in Chapter 5 does he remark, "My name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been." In the opening scenes of the film, Sangster’s screenplay identifies Caine’s character clearly as Harry Palmer. Someone who is shown to care little for authority, to indulge in quick repartee and to have an interest in good food. Newspaper cuttings shown in Palmer's kitchen are actually cookery articles written for The Observer by Deighton, who was an accomplished cook himself.[7][8] For a scene where Palmer prepares a meal, Deighton attempted to teach Caine how to crack an egg with one hand, which Caine could not manage. As a result, the hands in close-up are really Deighton's.[9]


The film was made at Pinewood Studios with sets designed by the art directors Peter Murton and Ken Adam. The film was shot on location around London in the widescreen screen ratio using Techniscope. In this format, the normal 35mm film frame is split in half, each now taking up only two perforations on the edges of the film stock rather than usual four. The format was introduced by Technicolor Italia in 1963 and allowed for a greater depth of field as it was shot with shorter focal length lenses than used in the anamorphic widescreen processes. This allowed cinematographer Otto Heller to construct images in deep focus, shooting behind objects and allowing both the objects in the foreground and the action taking place in the background to be in focus.[9]


John Barry, who had worked on all of the Bond films up to this time, composed the music score for the soundtrack. As opposed to the electric guitar which carried the melody in the "James Bond Theme", Barry made prominent use of a cimbalom.[10] The complex electronic sound effect of the brain-washing process was conceived by sound engineer Norman Wanstall and created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.[11]


When the film premiered at the Leicester Square Theatre in London on 18 March 1965, the film critic for The Times had mixed feelings about it. While enjoying the first part of the film, and generally praising Michael Caine, the critic found the second half bewildering to the extent that the characters "cease to be pleasantly mystifying and become just irritatingly obscure."[1] A review in Variety was largely positive, describing the film as "anti-Bond" for its unglamorous depiction of espionage, and praising Caine's understated performance but criticizing the sometimes "arty-crafty" camera work.[12]

Subsequently, the film has come to be recognized as a classic. The Ipcress File is included on the British Film Institute's BFI 100, a list of 100 of the best British films of the 20th century, at No. 59.[13] The review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes sampled 26 critics and judged all the reviews positive, with an average rating of 7.8/10.[14]

The film won the BAFTA Award for Best British Film, and Ken Adam won the award for 'Best British Art Direction, Colour'.[15]

Screenwriters Bill Canaway and James Doran received a 1966 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Foreign Film Screenplay.


There were two immediate sequels starring Harry Palmer: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Decades later Michael Caine returned to the character in Harry Alan Towers's Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).

TV Series[edit]

On December 2020, it was announced ITV will adapt The Ipcress File as a six part TV serial.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b The Times, 18 March 1965, page 9: Film review of The Ipcress File
  2. ^ Patterson, John (28 September 2012). "The name's Saltzman, Harry Saltzman". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
  3. ^ a b Angelini, Sergio. "Ipcress File, The (1965)". Screenonline. British Film Institute. Retrieved 20 May 2018.
  4. ^ Bradshaw, Peter (13 January 2006). "The Ipcress File". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  5. ^ Sangster, Jimmy (1997). Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?: From Hammer Films to Hollywood!: A Life in the Movies: An Autobiography. Midnight Marquee Press. p. 78. ISBN 9781887664134.
  6. ^ Sheffy, Pearl (29 January 1966). "The Man who got the Bond Going". Calgary Herald. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  7. ^ Deighton, Len (2009). Action Cook Book (Reissue ed.). New York: Harper Perennial. ISBN 9780007305872.
  8. ^ Deighton, Len (1965). Len Deighton's Cookstrip Cook Book (1st ed.). B. Geis Associates.
  9. ^ a b Lewis, Paul (1 August 2014). "The Ipcress File Blu-ray review". Rewind. DVDCompare. Retrieved 1 August 2014.
  10. ^ "John Leach – obituary". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. 11 July 2014. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  11. ^ James Bond Radio (13 June 2014). "Norman Wanstall Interview – Podcast #015". James Bond Radio. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  12. ^ Variety Staff (31 December 1964). "The Ipcress File". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  13. ^ "The BFI 100". British Film Institute. Archived from the original on 1 July 2008. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  14. ^ "The Ipcress File (1965)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved 30 June 2019.
  15. ^ "Helpful Information". British Film Designers Guild. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  16. ^

External links[edit]