The Ipcress File [SE]

16.02.2006 #365

Updated on 9.11.2008

Translation 28.07.2023
Written by Guido Bibra

Title The Ipcress File
Studio Lowndes Productions / The Rank Film Organisation (1965)
Released by Network (2006)
Disc Type DVD 9&5 (6,11 & 4,01 GB) Bitrate ø 7,95 max. 9,9
Runtime 103:08 Minutes Chapter 12
Region 2 (England) Case Scanavo Doppel transp.
Format PAL
Image 2.35:1 16:9 yes
Sound Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono 192 kbit/s Englisch, Commentary
Subtitles None
Rating BBFC PG
Extras • Commentary with Director Sidney Furie and Film Editor Peter Hunt
• New Exclusive Interview with Sir Michael Caine
• New Exklusive Interview with Production Designer Sir Ken Adam
• “The Ipcress File – Michael Caine goes Stella” Exclusive new comedy sketch starring Phil Cornwell
• 1969 Documentary “Candid Cane” 44:20 London Weekend Television
• Original US Radio Commercials
• Stills Gallery

The Movie

Harry Palmer is just one small agent among many and not particularly enthusiastic about his job. When he is put on a boring but seemingly harmless routine assignment to investigate the disappearances of British scientists who later turn up brainwashed, he doesn't have much hope of finding out a lot. But then he comes across an audio tape snippet with the mysterious inscription Ipcress - and soon events come to a head and Palmer no longer knows whom he can really trust...

When the first James Bond film was released in 1962, Len Deighton had published his first book The Ipcress File in the wake of the burgeoning spy craze, which quickly became a successful bestseller. The author, who originally worked in advertising as an illustrator and for some time had his own cooking comic strip in The Observer, was hailed by his critics as a new Ian Fleming whose tales were more realistic. Even Bond movie producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman took notice of the young writer and hired him as the first screenwriter for their new Fleming adaptation From Russia with Love, but they replaced him soon because he was not working fast enough and they didn't like his style.

But Harry Saltzman had not forgotten Len Deighton's unusual spy thriller with the nameless anti-hero and soon acquired the film rights to The Ipcress File and its sequels. A film adaptation was still some time away, as Saltzman, together with his partner Albert Broccoli, wanted to concentrate on the James Bond series first. After the great success of the first three movies, Saltzman saw an opportunity to bring an alternative to Ian Fleming's secret agent into the cinemas- someone who was almost the opposite and represented a kind of spy that had never been seen before on the big or small screen.

Comparing Len Deighton's agent with James Bond is obvious, but the two characters could not be more different: Bond is a secret agent with heart and soul and would let himself be torn to pieces for Queen and Country. Deighton's nameless spy, who only acquired the name Harry Palmer for the movies, is just a lowly worker who is considered replaceable and superfluous by his superiors, never does his assignments completely voluntarily and certainly does not enjoy his work. He has no choice because he is being held responsible for some black market shenanigans during the war and his superior is actually not the secret service, but the war ministry.

Harry Palmer was not supposed to be a glorious spy, but just a disillusioned soldier who has to work off his sentence as an involuntary agent to escape worse. Nevertheless, he is no crook and has a sense of justice, but in the end all he cares about is how much he has in his bank account at the beginning of the month. After all, even a secret agent has to live somehow, especially if he has to beg his superiors for every little expense. Despite his small flat and modest private life, Palmer does have certain personal standards - his penchant for cooking, classical music and beautiful women are somewhat reminiscent of Johannes Mario Simmel's Thomas Lieven, who is also one of the few involuntary agents in spy literature.

Originally, Harry Saltzman wanted to cast Christopher Plummer in the lead role, but the already established actor was not comfortable with a five film contract for an uncertain project and preferred to star with Julie Andrews in the musical The Sound of Music. Richard Harris also turned it down, so Saltzman had to look for other young actors and came across Michael Caine, who had been working in the theatre and in supporting roles in movies since the 1950s and was still waiting for his big break. After seeing him in his first big movie role in Zulu, Harry Saltzman signed Michael Caine and promised to make him a second James Bond - but in a completely different way.

Michael Caine proved to be the ideal choice for the laconic agent, whom he played in a very restrained, natural and somewhat satirical way and so came surprisingly close to Len Deighton's book template. In addition, he was able to get his wish fulfilled to wear his glasses in the film so that he could simply take them off for other movies, not being trapped by his secret agent role. Short-sightedness and an everyman appearance were not the only trademarks of Harry Palmer, but also the dry and bitter cynicism of the novel, which Michael Caine knew how to bring perfectly to the screen despite his relatively restrained performance.

Michael Caine was supported by an excellent cast of actors who, just like him, were not big stars at the time. The biggest name in the cast list was British actor Nigel Green, playing Palmer's new superior Major Dalby with a quintessential British military stiffness, making him not exactly one of the most likeable characters in the film. This was not the first time Nigel Green had appeared in front of the camera with Michael Caine, as the two actors had already appeared together a year earlier in Cy Coleman's African war drama Zulu. The busy actor was able to demonstrate his skills brilliantly in The Ipcress File, making a memorable unsympathetic character out of Major Dalby.

For the role of Palmer's old boss Colonel Ross, Harry Saltzman was able to recruit New Zealand actor Guy Doleman, whom he had previously hired for a small supporting role in the fourth Bond film Thunderball. His appearance in The Ipcress File is much larger, giving Doleman the opportunity to demonstrate a typically British bureaucrat, much like his co-star Nigel Green. Colonel Ross is by no means as unsympathetic as Major Dalby and, with his dry manner and his disparaging way of handling his subordinate Harry Palmer, is somewhat reminiscent of James Bond's superior M.

Len Deighton had already included an unusual female supporting character in the novel, who also plays a small but important role in the film adaptation: Harry Palmer's new colleague Jean, who is portrayed in the film very cool and mysterious by the relatively unknown actress Sue Lloyd. She has little to do with the glamorous girls of the James Bond films and even seems more like a strict Miss Moneypenny than a provocative spy playmate, but on the other hand she does not correspond at all to the usual stereotype and can also convince with intelligence and not only with her looks.

Harry Saltzman chose the young Canadian Sidney J. Furie as director, but soon wished he had found someone else: the producer was appalled by his seemingly chaotic working style. A fight quickly broke out between the tempestuous Saltzman and Furie, who at one time fled the production to escape from the producer's tantrums and was only brought back by the persuasion of the crew and actors. Furie carried on despite the troubles and pushed through his unconventional methods, even if Harry Saltzman didn't like it.

Together with veteran cameraman Otto Heller, Sidney J. Furie created an unusual visual style. The camera often showed the action from adventurous angles and the view of the wide Techniscope image is often obscured by objects, creating the unsettling impression of surreptitious observation. The unusual image composition seems strange at first glance, but works wonderfully as a narrative trick and gives the film a look all of its own, which was later often copied by many, but never used to such great effect as in The Ipcress File.

The screenplay adaptation by Bill Canavay and James Doran, two relatively unknown authors, naturally had to remove a lot from the very detailed and extensive novel. Only a few basic ideas were used, but the characters and the dark and pessimistic mood remained largely intact. A voiceover as an implementation of the first-person narrator was not employed because the vast amounts of text would have been too much for a film script and a running commentary would have destroyed the atmosphere of the film. This was compensated with an above-average amount of dialogue.

In contrast to the book, the plot takes place entirely in London, which was obviously a decision made mostly for economic reasons. Exciting parts of the book involving a nuclear weapons test were entirely removed, but this was was done in close cooperation with Len Deighton who contributed a few new ideas of his own. As a result, the implementation of the basic concept succeeded surprisingly well and was able to remain very faithful to the original story despite the massive deviations.

The plot remained complex and had little in common with other films of the genre, which were mostly constructed around action scenes. There are no big spectacles in The Ipcress File save for the explanation of the titular MacGuffin resulting in an uncomfortable torture scene, but nevertheless the plot has a surprising amount of story to offer. Lots of dialogue and very little classic action make The Ipcress File a downright intellectual film. Viewers who switch off their brain for even five minutes are liable to immediately lose the plot given the heavy density of the story. The Ipcress File is like a jigsaw puzzle - at the beginning the individual pieces hardly make any sense, only in the course of the movie their meaning slowly become apparent.

Instead of using lavish studio sets, The Ipcress File was mainly shot on original locations in London. It was, however, not the colourful swinging London of the sixties, but a grey, rainy big city that does not look particularly inviting. but is all the more authentic. The film's setting is also a valuable contemporary document, showing a side of the British capital from the mid-1960s that is not often seen in movies of that time. Sidney J. Furie and cinematographer Otto Heller had achieved this by showing the city not from the exciting perspective of a tourist, but from the everyday view.

Ken Adam, who had previously made a name for himself with the gigantic sets of the Bond movies, was responsible for the production design and was Harry Saltzman's first choice for The Ipcress File. His outlandish constructions were less in demand this time, as the task was to construct entirely ordinary looking sets. Although some scenes were staged at Pinewood Studios, the majority of the interior shots were filmed in a London apartment building converted into a studio, which doubled as a canteen, office and many other production departments. Ken Adam ensured that the sets were given a completely realistic look, which turned out to be a masterpiece precisely because of its unobtrusiveness.

In addition to editor Peter Hunt, producer Harry Saltzman had also borrowed another indispensable collaborator from the staff of the Bond films: composer John Barry, who had given the films his own very distinctive sound. For The Ipcress File, he remained largely true to his style, but showed his versatility by writing a very unusual theme music. Instead of a cracking title song, the opening credits are accompanied by a quiet, melancholic melody that excellently expresses the dark and mysterious mood of the film.

John Barry achieved the very special sound of his film score this time not only with his characteristic brass sections or an electrifying guitar solo, but mainly with the cimbalom, a dulcimer-like string instrument that is used more effectively in The Ipcress File than in any other film score. The title melody played on it is heard in many different arrangements, not all of which use the rare instrument as a solo voice, but which consistently employ an equally unusual rhythmic accompaniment of vibraphone, flute and only very sparingly used brass. With this unusual instrumentation, John Barry has created an impressively innovative film score.

The Ipcress File could have been a serious rival to the James Bond films, but the intelligent style of the movie with its extensive dialogue and complex plot was not really suitable for mass audiences. As a result, the big success failed to happen, but nevertheless The Ipcress File was able to win over quite a respectable regular audience and the critics were also consistently enthusiastic about the unusually sophisticated entertainment. In the End, Harry Palmer's first adventure had two successors with Funeral in Berlin and The Billion Dollar Brain, which were not really big successes either, but count among the best spy movies of the sixties and today enjoy an excellent reputation as real classics.

For Michael Caine, the film marked the start of a long acting career that continues to this day. Hardly anyone, however, can remember that today's character actor once started out as the small-time secret agent Harry Palmer. The popularity of The Ipcress File, known in Germany by the relatively accurately translated title Ipcress - Streng Geheim, is limited and very much overshadowed by the competition, mainly of course the Bond franchise. But on the more realistic side of the genre, only John LeCarré and of course Len Deighton remain, whose The Ipcress File is one of the very best spy film adaptations.

The Disc

The Ipcress File had already been released on DVD by Anchor Bay in the USA in 1999, but unfortunately this disc has been out-of-print for a long time - this was a great pity, as it contained an excellent audio commentary with the late director Sidney J. Furie and editor Peter Hunt. In 2003 Koch Media released the film in Germany in very good quality, but without the commentary track. Until then, the German DVD was the only way to get the film in its original format and with original sound, because the previous British DVD only had a cropped Pan&Scan picture format.

When the English studio Network announced a new DVD of The Ipcress File as a Special Edition in 2005, its exact contents were not known until shortly before the release - but in the end it turned out to be the best DVD release of the movie. In addition to a transfer based on the same solid master of the Koch DVD, the Network edition includes the "lost" audio commentary from the American DVD and a greatcollection of bonus material on a second disc. There is also a deluxe version which, in addition to the 2-DVD set, includes a print edition of Len Deighton's novel and the soundtrack CD - but at twice the price of the normal DVD. But this is also excellently done, if you disregard the strangely minimalist cover design.

In 2014, this DVD release was upgraded with a new high-definition transfer for a Blu-Ray also released by Network in the UK and later in Germany as a lavish three-disc edition by Koch Films.


The transfer of this DVD is based on the same master that was used for the German DVD in 2003. Network has taken over the transfer almost unchanged, only the sharpness filter has been cut back a little and the original title sequence has been used. The image quality is very good considering the circumstances, the only limitations being the film format used.

The Ipcress File was shot in Techniscope, which, similar to the current Super35 format, uses a smaller film frame than normal Panavision scope film and therefore has higher graininess and not quite as good a picture quality. Techniscope, however, was popular with many directors in the 1960s not only for cost reasons, but also because normal spherical lenses could be used, allowing image compositions that would have been difficult or impossible with anamorphic lenses.

The film stock of this DVD has been cleaned very well, as neither dirt nor damage is visible. The very strong graininess of the film material, on the other hand, has not been touched and is constantly visible, but it is not disturbing and gives the picture a pleasant, film-like texture. Because no noise filter was used, the sharpness is surprisingly good despite Techniscope and, although it cannot come close to a current Panavision film, makes a very satisfactory impression. The picture is relatively stable, but sometimes there is a slight horizontal wobble, which is only noticeable on closer inspection.

The colour timing is very unusual, as at first glance you almost get the impression that a heavily faded copy of the film was used for the transfer. The grey-bluish monotony with the well-placed splashes of colour, serves as a special stylistic device, just like the unusual camera work and the sometimes slightly steep contrast. Therefore, the colours appear very coherent and make a much more natural impression than modern digital colour experiments in a current movie.

Overall, the image leaves an excellent impression if you don't mind the idiosyncratic colour timing and the film grain, which is not quite as noticeable on the Network DVD thanks to the reduced sharpness filter.


The soundtrack of this DVD is apparently also from the same source as that of the earlier Koch release and can hold its own really well for a forty-year-old mono soundtrack. A 5.1 remix was not made for the new British DVD either, which is surprising given the surround trend, but still better than a forced upmix of a mono original.

Frequency response and dynamics are somewhat limited due to age, but bass and treble are still better than some other movies from this period. Noise or crackle are not major problems here, the sound is very clean and does not exhibit any typical optical track problems - a clean magnetic sound master was used here, which was very carefully transfered without having been filtered to death. John Barry's music sounds almost crystal clear, only a proper surround mix would have been desirable here, as the soundtrack exists in finest stereo after all.

The dialogue is very well intelligible and only rarely sounds a little thin, but overall the quality is better than one is used to from films of this age. What is noticeable in some scenes, however, is poor lip sync, which is not a mastering fault of the DVD, but merely caused by less than perfect dubbing during film production. Unfortunately, the DVD does not contain any subtitles, but this is not quite so serious due to the good intelligibility of the dialogue.


Network's new special edition of The Ipcress File really deserves the name, because the studio has really made an effort. The menu design is just as plain as the cover, but beneath the simple surface is some excellent content.

The first disc contains the audio commentary with director Sidney J. Furie and editor Peter Hunt, recorded in 1999 for the American Anchor Bay release. Peter Hunt passed away in 2002, so this commentary track is an important document and not at all a dull affair. Furie and Hunt are an extremely talkative duo and, while they can't always remember everything, they take their own forgetfulness in good humour and still reveal quite a lot of anecdotes. The many problems of the film's production also come up, and Sidney J. Furie talks openly about the trouble he had with Harry Saltzman. Despite a few small breaks, this commentary track is extremely lively entertaining.

The first DVD contains only the Trailer (1:03) in the original format and 16:9 enhanced, the rest of the bonus material is on a separate disc.

The Interview with Michael Caine (21:08) was newly produced for this DVD and is actually not a simple interview at all, but a small documentary in which Michael Caine has many interesting stories to tell about the making of the film and his role, not sparinghis famous charm and humour. Professionally edited with some short film clips and photos, this interview documentary has very high information content despite its short running time.

The Interview with Production Designer Ken Adam (10:30) is structured very similarly to the first interview and also gives more the impression of a mini-documentary. The featurette is actually only so short because Ken Adam (armed with his eternal cigar) quickly gets to the point and describes his work on The Ipcress File in an impressively concise manner.

The Ipcress File - Michael Caine goes Stella (4.57) is a short sketch with Phil Cornwell as a remarkably good Michael Caine impersonator, giving a brief but crisp introduction to The Ipcress File and his further career. Phil Cornwell could indeed be mistaken for a young Michael Caine, but after all, he has been perfecting this and many other roles in the English sitcom Stella Street for a long time.

Candid Cane (44:20) is an old London Weekend Television programme from 1969 that covers in detail the still very fresh career of Michael Caine, who is featured in an extensive interview.Although there is of course a high nostalgia factor involved, this particular type of documentary is an ideal complement to the other extras on the DVD and not just an embarrassing supplement dusted off from some oldarchive.

Original US Radio Commercials - Four radio commercials (2:48) that have nostalgia value but are nothing really special.

The Stills Gallery is surprisingly well-stocked with over 130 large-format production photos, but only runs as a long film in one piece without chapter divisions - nevertheless, this is one of the much better DVD picture galleries.

The Textless Material (4:14) consists of the film's opening and closing credits - but without the font overlays and without sound.Intended strictly for the archive, it is nevertheless amazing that Network had access to this material and put it on this DVD.