Year Released: 1965
Directed by: Sidney J. Furie
Starring: Michael Caine, Nigel Green, Guy Doleman, Sue Lloyd, Gordon Jackson
(Not Rated, 109 min.)
"I was counting on you being an insubordinate bastard, Palmer." Len Deighton: The Ipcress File
This classic British thriller has the nitty gritty stuff of Cold War spy stories – tedious stakeouts, dark hallways, rain-polished streets, and a bureaucracy almost as deadly as the enemy. Meet Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, the anti-James Bond, who even with his cockney accent and horn-rimmed glasses is every bit as sexy as his better-known rival. And did I mention that he can cook, too?
And he’s so very British. Harry Palmer even refers to the good-looking females as “birds,” something you’d never hear Oxford educated Bond say. In fact, this “working-class hero with a taste for Mozart and Haute cuisine” is a purposeful contrast to the continental sophisticate 007. Harry Palmer, a cockney career soldier who has earned his way out of the brig – he’s there on black-marketing charges – and into the intelligence services, is on the same short leash as Neal Caffrey of the TV series “White Collar.” He’s got to obey orders, even if it goes against his nature, or he’s back behind bars.
His new boss, Major Dalby (Nigel Green) sets the tone by reading Palmer’s dossier, his B-107 if you’re into the British bureaucratic jargon, aloud to him.
“Insubordinate. Insolent. A trickster. Perhaps with criminal tendencies.”
“Yes, that a pretty fair appraisal, sir,” Palmer replies without missing a beat, subtly demonstrating all three characteristics at once.
And he’ll need all these and more to help solve Operation Brain Drain, as it’s been dubbed, the systematic removal of some of Britain’s best scientists.
The gentle satire of The Ipcress File reveals the pedestrian and often clumsy machinations of a spy world stripped clean of its glamorous intrigue. Yes, the bad guys do have peppy code names like Blue Jay and House Martin, but even these are a kind of sly joke. In practice, Harry hunts them down through a series of parking violations, and he doesn’t shadow them in cloak and dagger fashion or hound them through the streets of London in the obligatory screeching car chase. Instead, Harry walks down the spiral wooden stairs of the Science Library, seats himself across the table from Blue Jay and proposes a deal for the latest scientist, Radcliffe.
All Harry ends up with is a defunct telephone number. And later on, when he really thinks he has the goods on Blue Jay, calling in a very expensive raid on the warehouse where he thinks Radcliffe is being held, one with streams of police cars and gun wielding officers, he comes up empty handed. That is, except for a badly damaged audiotape he finds smoldering in some ashes. It has some letters on it –IPCRESS – and Harry says, perhaps to save face, “This could be something.” Understatement and irony at its British best.
Other encounters have subtle and low key underpinnings that are not without a touch of dry British humor. Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), his earlier boss, wants a word with Harry. He doesn’t choose a deserted park bench or the pale light of a streetlight, but a supermarket, where he loads his cart with everything from Beef-A-Roni (“Extraordinary!”) to baby food as he tries to pry some information from his former minion. And just to make sure Harry gets the menace behind his request, he heads off his shopping cart at the end of the row, a comic trivialization of a standard cop maneuver usually done with a V-8 instead of a wire box on wheels.
On the other hand, Harry’s bedroom talk is music to any woman’s ears. “I’m going to cook you the best meal you have ever tasted.” Quite an aphrodisiac, we might conclude, as his beautiful colleague Jean Courtney (Sue Lloyd) asks later if he always wears his glasses. He has no sooner explained yes, except when he goes to bed, that she gently removes them. This subtle sex scene, with everything left to our imagination, beats or at least rivals Bond’s sly double ententes or the shot of a gown as it tumbles to the bedroom floor.
And let’s talk about those horn-rimmed glasses, shall we. Did you know that Harry Palmer was the first action hero to wear glasses? Part of the reason was actor Michael Caine’s desire to camouflage his face, even though in real life he was myopic. He didn’t want to be over-identified with the Harry Palmer character and could therefore remove them for other roles. The trademark glasses caught another Michael’s eye, though, Mike Myers, who modeled his Austin Powers after Harry Palmer.
Still more light humor comes from Harry’s very British bosses and the very British bureaucracy. The door to his new office is manned not by an adoring Miss Moneypenny, but a gray-haired matron who never sports a smile, but just a drooping cigarette that threatens to drop ashes on all that paperwork on her desk. And paperwork there is, paperwork galore. Harry and his colleagues must regularly fill out the onerous 18 questions on the L 102 forms, whether or not they actually accomplish anything or not.
Colonel Ross and Major Dalby wear their bowler hats and carry the obligatory umbrellas as walking sticks, meeting over tea and Dover sole at their club. Dalby relishes his meeting with Blue Jay at the military band podium, keeping the beat with his leather-gloved hand. Palmer, a Mozart lover, is “in luck with the next piece,” but its transition from orchestra to bandstand lacks something for the fastidious spy, who wants to leave.
“I think they’re playing very well,” Dalby protests.
“Tell me who wins,” is Palmer’s parting shot.
You can’t go wrong with this classic that has aged as nicely as its very talented star. Forget the well choreographed, adrenaline pumping, technically perfect, mindless action pieces we’ve grown used to, and settle in for the slow burn instead of the superficial sizzle.
It’s no surprise that Harry Palmer is an East End gourmet. The spymaster who wrote the novel the film is based on, Len Deighton, was an accomplished cook, a pastry chef by training. He penned illustrated recipes geared to Britain’s male audience called, for lack of a better term, cookstrips. If you look closely, you can see them framed in Harry Palmer’s kitchen. These were compiled in the 1960s and called Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook, with a picture of a very handsome guy cooking some pasta while an entranced beauty encourages him. In celebration of Deighton’s 80th birthday, the cookbook was reissued this year.
One of Harry’s featured dishes, the one that his beautiful fellow spy Jean fell for, was made with Champignon Sauce, a mushroom cream sauce. It is delicious with pasta, chicken, or steak.
You can enjoy it even without any clandestine activities in your portfolio.
2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms
¼ cup dry white wine
¼ cup butter or margarine
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup milk
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon sugar
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons whipping cream
In small saucepan over medium heat, cook and stir mushrooms in wine until liquid evaporates; reserve.
In 1-quart saucepan, melt butter; stir in flour. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes or until mixture is bubbly. Stir broth and milk into flour mixture. Cook, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes or until sauce has thickened. Stir in salt, sugar and pepper.
In small bowl, beat egg yolks and cream with whisk or fork. Stir about 1/2 cup of hot sauce into egg yolk mixture. Blend egg yolk mixture slowly into hot sauce in saucepan; stir in mushrooms. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until hot but not boiling.
Goes well with pasta, Chicken, or steak.
Recipe Source: TLC Cooking