Tuesday, January 24, 2006

THE IPCRESS FILE - Classic Michael Caine Cold War spy flick

Back in the days before I started bitching about Hollywood biting its own style with a slew of uninspired remakes, legendary producer, Harry Saltzmanm was already in on the act. Saltzman had already created one mega-bucks franchise in the James Bond movies, but, as a shrewd man, he knew that there was some opposition to this glamorous, sexy, gentleman's club view of Cold War espionage. The backlash manifested itself in a number of spy novels that deliberately painted a far more bleak, bureaucratic and fallible picture of British intelligence. Chief among these were the novels of Len Deighton and John le Carre. Saltzman, shrewdly realising that someone would bite his style, did it himself, by shifting the whole Bond production team into producing "alternative" spy thrillers based on the Deighton novels - effectively monopolising British spy franchises and coining in the proverbial phat cash.

Cineastes will tell you how "significant" IPCRESS is. It's the first thriller to feature a hero who (shock! horror!) wears glasses. Worse still, he is a working class guy who gets recruited to spying in a supermarket (!) and never gets to shag hot chicks. Moreover, the whole feel of the movie is more art-house than cineplex. Instead of sleek, luxurious production design, we get the grime and grit of '60s London. The movie is photographed by Otto Heller using off-whack camera angles, distorting lenses and other tricks that serve to undermine the viewer. The hero, Harry Palmer, is definitely not in control in the way that James Bond (in the movies, if not the books) always is.

Granted, THE IPCRESS FILE is significant, but more to the point for the modern viewer, is it entertaining cinema? The answer is a qualified yes.
This is a great plot, well shot. Harry Palmer is a retired copper who falls into spying by accident. Top British scientists are getting kidnapped, brainwashed, and then returned and the top brass want to know why and by whom. The story still has great tension and the pacing does not feel too slow to a modern audience. The only slight obstacle is that, while we get great acting from Michael Caine in his break-out performance, this sort of "British hard man" role has become something of a cinematic cliche. With Caine parodying himself in the Austin Powers flicks, it is sometimes hard to take the original seriously. Still, given the lack of decent flicks released this week, you could do a lot worse than check out the movie that inspired a slew of imitators.

THE IPCRESS FILE was originally released in 1965. It is currently on re-release in the UK.

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