The timing was perfect. Just when moviegoers were deeply entrenched in James Bond's suave charm, along came Michael Caine to take the gilt off the undercover gingerbread. Forget about dinner jackets and cocktails "shaken, not stirred", this East End lad was cheeky, insubordinate, a good cook and smart enough not to waste time in casinos. Also, he wore glasses.

Len Deighton's Harry Palmer shared only one attribute with Ian Fleming's ex-public school MI6 operative - self-confidence. Although a junior at the Ministry of Defence, doing stakeouts and routine work, he made a mark as a man who thought for himself and didn't obey orders without question. His irreverent attitude towards authority made him excellent spy material, although annoying to have on your team. He ignored rules, made passes at the prettiest girls, appeared not to take anything seriously and trusted no-one, especially his superiors.

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Deighton's plot is full of intrigue and complexity. It concerns the kidnapping of high ranking scientists, advanced brainwashing techniques and Cold War cunning. Palmer takes the place of a bodyguard who was murdered in the line of duty, but is quick to elude office protocol and make his own investigations behind the backs of his colleagues. What he discovers is more threatening to the security of Great Britain than he had ever imagined, certainly more threatening to his life.

Sidney J Furie's flashy direction was ahead of its time, which is why the film has lasted so well. He makes use of London locations to great effect. All that's dated is the ex-army emphasis on the command structure. Major Ross (Guy Doleman), Palmer first boss, plays an Old Harrovian type. Irritated by most things to do with his job, he rather likes Palmer's anarchic streak. Dalby (Nigel Green), whom Ross chides as a failed Major, is more formal. He is in charge of Palmer's next department and is less relaxed about unauthorised initiative. His back is as stiff as his moustache.

Before this, Caine had played a toff on a horse in Zulu to considerable critical acclaim. All that was known about him was that he came from the East End, shared a flat with Terence Stamp and didn't hang out with the beautiful people. The Ipcress File made him what he is today, or rather gave him the break he needed. The casting was inspired.

Caine made Palmer his own and played him in two subsequent films, neither of which were a patch on the first. It is a performance to remember. Looking at it now, you see a youthful Caine that is the template of the man who became Sir Michael, as if the actor took over Deighton's character and didn't give him back.

Reviewed on: 01 Dec 2001
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The Ipcress File packshot
A spy investigates the kidnapping and brainwashing of British scientists.
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Director: Sidney J Furie

Writer: Bill Canaway, James Doran, based on the novel by Len Deighton

Starring: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson, Aubrey Richards, Frank Gatliff

Year: 1965

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK

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