The Ipcress File (1965): hypnotic working-class Bond

1 JANUARY 2024

JBC rating: *****

James Bond Connections (6):

  • Producer Harry Saltzman (Bond Producer, 1962 – 1975).
  • Featuring actor Guy Doleman (Count Lippe in Thunderball) as Colonel Ross.
  • Production designer Ken Adam (Bond production designer, various, 1962 – 1979).
  • Composer John Barry (Bond composer, various, 1962 – 1987).
  • Editor Peter Hunt (Bond Editor / Director, 1962 – 1969).
  • Sound design Norman Wanstall (Sound designer, Goldfinger).

In October 1962, the same month Dr No was released in cinemas, English artist-turned author Len Deighton saw the publication of his debut thriller The IPCRESS File, an instant bestseller leading to a series following the adventures of a working-class English spy. Ironically, given Deighton’s creation provided a gritty tonic to the increasingly fantastical James Bond series, this and two further Deighton’s novels were brought to the screen from 1965 onwards by Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman (with IPCRESS losing its capitalisation along the way). Indeed, one of the reasons The Ipcress File remains such a terrific spy thriller is the presence of so many EON regulars involved in the production, including John Barry who provides one of his greatest-ever soundtracks. Additional interest for any James Bond fan is that despite being ostensibly an anti-Bond film with a focus on spy procedure, The Ipcress File includes themes found in Bond and other spy fantasy films of the 1960s such as brainwashing and mind control.

Ably supported by American director Sydney J. Furie, English actor Michael Caine (top image) gives a star making performance as working-class spy Harry Palmer, tasked with tracking down a missing scientist. An unnamed and overweight Northerner from Burnley in the novel, the slim and handsome Caine still maintains the slightly intense and chippy essence of Deighton’s character. Actor Guy Doleman (above right, featuring here the same year he appeared as suave but doomed villain Count Lippe in Thunderball) plays Palmer’s rather droll boss Colonel Ross and the film opens with Ross transferring Palmer to a new department run by Nigel Green’s humourless Major Dalby (above left). It soon becomes clear Ross is highly suspicious about Dalby and Palmer eventually decides he can in fact trust neither of his superiors. Furthering the paranoid atmosphere, both Ross and Dalby attempt to control the insubordinate Palmer with threats of military prison owing to illicit activities in his previous career in the army.

Instructed to locate middle-man Bluejay, who offers to secure the safe return of the missing scientist in exchange for money, Palmer utilises a Bond-like network by pulling a favour from a special branch colleague to help track down the international villain. Bluejay, played with sinister charm by English actor Frank Gatliff, is introduced as a Kristatos-style antagonist, unscrupulous in his willingness to deal with whomever pays enough cash. Bluejay is assisted by his silent bald henchman Housemartin, played with thuggish menace by Irish actor Oliver MacGreevy. Palmer engages Housemartin in a fight outside the Royal Albert Hall, memorably edited by Bond master-cutter Peter Hunt. Throughout the film, iconic Bond production designer Ken Adam proves himself equally adept outside of his famous spectacles, here creating BAFTA award-winning gritty and realistic settings which further enhance the tense mood.

Whilst connected to 007 by his amusing one-liners and natural roguishness, Palmer’s key similarity with Bond is his status as an outsider, a quality present even in the Bond of the old Etonian Ian Fleming. Indeed, Palmer’s insubordinate qualities prove vital to the story, as they do for Bond in his adventures. However, Palmer differs from Bond in several other aspects. In a fun title sequence following Palmer’s morning routine (and overlayed by John Barry’s superb theme which manages to suggest both the mighty Soviet menace and Palmer’s plucky courage), the agent is set up as a working-class alternative to Bond. He may sleep with a gun under his pillow, but the short-sighted Palmer resides in a pokey flat and, with no treasure of a Scottish housekeeper like May, must cook for himself. Additionally, whilst Palmer has an eye for the ladies, he must work much harder for any female attention than Bond. Indeed, Palmer remains a one-woman man in The Ipcress File, managing to woo only British Intelligence secretary Jean Courtney (nicely played by English actress Sue Lloyd, above left).

The tightly wound screenplay by writers Bill Canaway and James Dornan most obviously departs from the novel by relocating all the globe-trotting action to London. In a tense scene relocated from Lebanon in the novel, Palmer accidentally shoots dead an eavesdropping CIA agent in a dank London car park. Palmer is subsequently tailed by another CIA operative, Barney, in a small but memorable role for actor Thomas Baptiste. Barney suspects Palmer’s true loyalties and cinematographer Otto Heller’s avant-garde camera angles amongst the London settings serve to heighten Palmer’s increasing paranoia.

The most notable change from the novel is the omission of lengthy passages set on a Pacific atoll, site of a U.S nuclear bomb testing centre. Whilst this helps increase the claustrophobic feel (and undoubtedly saved a lot of money on the budget), the global signatories to the 1963 US-sponsored nuclear test ban treaty, which officially ended nuclear weapons testing on air, sea and land made this section of the novel outdated by 1965. Elsewhere, the action is made more immediate than in the novel, with a key villain’s death brought onscreen for the film. The only slight flaw is, owing to some dense dialogue, the plot only really makes total sense after repeated viewings (or after reading the novel). The story could certainly have been made clearer through small tweaks to the dialogue – such as having Palmer refer to “our missing scientist” rather than “Radcliff”, one of many male names the audience may easily lose track of.


The story centres around Soviet actors targeting the British establishment with a brain-washing plot and Palmer discovers the villains have constructed a network of ‘thought-reformed’ agents to feed bogus information to the UK. Brainwashing became a popular plot device in 1960s spy fiction, undoubtedly following the success of American author Richard Condon’s 1959 blockbuster political thriller The Manchurian Candidate and the classic 1962 film adaptation. Ian Fleming himself would utilise the idea in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1963), where Blofeld’s ‘Angel’s of Death’ are controlled through hypnosis and in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN (1965) where Bond, brainwashed by the Soviet Union, is programmed to assassinate M (in a scene yet to be used by EON). The 1965 film of The Ipcress File expands on Deighton’s story considerably, with Palmer spending the climax under the control of the villains and it is at this point Saltzman’s film arguably veers into straight spy fantasy. Indeed, during Palmer’s gruelling, nightmarish brain-washing scene the lighting for Ken Adam’s set (above) and Norman Wanstall’s sound design anticipate similar scenes in Piz Gloria in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969).

In their fine work Some Kind of Hero (2015), esteemed Bond historians Ajay Choudaray and Matthew Field document how Len Deighton worked on early drafts of From Russia with Love (1963) and this may have led to Harry Saltzman’s decision to film the writer’s first novel. Though Harry Saltzman’s restless ambition famously led to the destruction of his business relationship with Albert R. Broccoli in the following decade, it did result in some fine films, even though some proved direct competition to his EON productions. However, whilst the Harry Palmer series proved probably the strongest rival to Bond in the 1960s, as the trilogy progressed the content and style arguably moved closer to EON’s interpretation of Fleming, with the mostly spy procedural focus of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin (1966) giving way to the straight up spy fantasy and spectacle of Billion Dollar Brain (1967). Therefore, despite setting up a rival to his own franchise, Saltzman quickly proved 007 reigned supreme as a cultural influence.

Regardless of any strict genre classification, The Ipcress File remains a classic spy thriller in its own right. Michael Caine proves a memorable and always engaging leading man and he is ably assisted by director Sydney J. Furie who, working from an excellent screenplay, generates considerable suspense from the tense story. The rest of the cast bring to life some memorable characters and the EON regulars – most notably John Barry and Ken Adam – lend 007-level magic. Whether or not it was eclipsed by EON’s James Bond productions, The Ipcress File is a superb British film and is highly recommended.

Do you think The Ipcress File is a classic espionage film? How do you feel it compares with James Bond? Please leave a comment or an alternative review below.

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