REVIEWED BY JONATHAN LEWIS:


LEN DEIGHTON – The Ipcress File. “Harry Palmer” #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1962. Simon & Schuster, US, hardcover, 1963. Fawcett Crest, US, paperback, 1965. Reprinted many times.

THE IPCRESS FILE. Rank Films, UK, 1965. Universal, US, 1965. Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards. Based on the novel by Len Deighton. Director: Sidney J. Furie.

   The screenwriters of the stylishly downbeat film The Ipcress File made the correct decision by introducing the notion of the eponymous file to the audience in the first half of the film’s running time. One structural problem in Len Deighton’s otherwise exceedingly compelling work of espionage fiction is that it’s not until the very tail end of the text that the author discloses what “IPCRESS” really means and how it fits into all that has transpired.

   Somehow it lessens not only the impact of the word, but also the terrifying possibilities it portends for both the story’s protagonist and Western democracy as a whole.

   To no one’s surprise, particularly those who are familiar with tropes from the spy genre, IPCRESS is an acronymm in this case for “Induction of Psychoneuroses by Conditioned Reflex under Stress.” That makes perfect sense, since Len Deighton’s work is Cold War fiction at its best. It is also fundamentally a thriller about mind control, particularly the West’s fear that the Eastern bloc as well as its more dogmatic and revolutionary Maoist cousins would develop a means of reprogramming Westerners into docile communist agents.

   In the movie adaptation, British agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) comes across the word IPCRESS fairly early on during his investigation into the disappearance of a British physicist. He’s not sure what it means, but when a colleague who uncovers the true meaning of the word is murdered, he knows that he’s up against individuals willing to destroy people psychologically for the sake of their ideology or money or both.

   Fundamental to the story is Palmer and how he fits, or alternatively doesn’t fit, into the mold of a spy. A military officer with a troubled past and a penchant for insubordination, Palmer is the anti-James Bond. He’s working class and lives a far from glamorous lifestyle. There are no exotic locales filled with beautiful women, yachts, or sports cars for him.

   While the novel features sequences in both Lebanon and the South Pacific, the filmmakers made the right call and set the movie entirely in London, emphasizing the city’s persistently gray sky and its foreboding industrial spaces. Caine, with his Cockney accent and devil may care attitude, is a perfect fit for the role. Audiences must have agreed for Caine reprised the role in two other Palmer films in the 1960s: Funeral in Berlin (1966) and Billion Dollar Brain (1967).

   In both the novel and the film version of The Ipcress File, Palmer’s investigation into the man allegedly responsible for both kidnapping and reprogramming British scientists so that they would be unable to work eventually leads him straight into the lion’s den. He gets captured and is forced to endure the mind control techniques that have wreaked havoc on some of England’s finest scientists, figuratively turning their brains into mush.

   This is where the film gets psychedelic, very much akin to a scene toward the end of The Venetian Affair (1967), a movie similarly about communist brainwashing techniques, in which Robert Vaughn’s character is subject to an equally sinister method of mind control at the hands of a villain working for Communist China.

   Sidney J. Furie’s direction, with his use of strange, unsettling angles, lends the film a disquieting feel. There’s not a lot of sunlight on display here, either literally or metaphorically. Palmer’s not doing his duty for Queen and Country as much as he is for his pay check and to avoid a military prison for transgressions he committed while serving in Germany.

   In this film everyone is expendable and no one can be trusted. John Barry’s jazzy score gives this cynical and bleak alternative to the James Bond franchise a hip London vibe without the heroic fanfare.