The Ipcress File is a working man’s spy movie. It mostly treats the spy game as humdrum with occasional sparks of extreme life-threatening danger. It finds its intrigue within the bureaucratic confines of one particular British agency rather than the globe-hopping, gadget-humping, Bond-girl bedding world that is all things 007. If James Bond threw on a set of horn rim glasses, preferred red wine to shaken-not-stirred martinis, and like to stay at home and cook to classical music, he could almost be Harry Palmer.
“Harry Palmer”…yes, that’s actually Michael Caine’s name in this. Is it supposed to be a joke? I’m not so sure. But then a lot of this movie plays as deadpan humor.
Caine plays Harry, an ex-Army man new to the spy game, working low-level surveillance routines at first. Then British scientists begin disappearing and turning up days later completely brainwashed. Harry is transferred to a new division, even more humorless and by-the-book than his previous one, where he begins investigating the disappearances along with a group of other agents ordered simply to follow the man believed to be involved.
Harry takes the more direct route, blindly approaching the man and offering to buy the “medical findings” off him. This leads to something called The Ipcress File, which Harry takes a peek at, which then leads to a whole lot of trouble, counter-espionage, and some light Clockwork Orange-style torture by way of swinging '60s kaleidoscope.
The plot’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but the tone of this movie is what makes it fresh. It's interestingly off-kilter, with a lot of canted angles, partially obscured frames and deadpan spook-speak dialogue. Even Palmer’s love interest in this, a fellow female agent, is treated with a kind of passionless matter-of-factness. They’re both agents, secretly working against one another, so it’s a prerequisite they sleep together. And they do so with all the vigor of filling out a dry field report.
The Ipcress File may not be the most edge-of-your-seat spy movie ever made, but I think that’s kind of the point.