The Ipcress File (1965)


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PG    109 min                          –  Drama  | Thriller                 –              March 1965(UK)


Sidney J. Furie


W.H. Canaway; James Doran


Michael CaineNigel GreenGuy Doleman


Scientists working for the government mysteriously quit their jobs, and some even more mysteriously, disappear. Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) investigates.


The Ipcress File (1965)

The Ipcress File (1965)

The film opens like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Two, perfectly innocent men step aboard a train. One of them leaves as he remembers that the other forgot a possession of his that was left in the car. When returning, his friend mysteriously vanishes. So begins this strange and oddly unnerving little thriller.

However, unlike a Hitchcock, where we know more information than the characters, here, neither us nor the characters know much at all. When the ‘villain’ (if you can call it that) is revealed, it never really comes as a surprise – not because we already guessed – far from it – but because the film is so subtly crafted and plotted that it is hinted at that what we are seeing is a mere simplification. Villains don’t exist in the world which The Ipcress File inhabits – instead we have eluvious men in trenchcoats who use eye-contact and meetings in bandstands to communicate; quiet forty-somethings who manipulate and deceit with a smile and backstab with a quintessential stiff-upper-lip attitude. It’s all rather British and sarcastic.

The film unfolds glacially as we observe Michael Caine’s concise performance as Harry Palmer, a well-humored individual that won’t be smiling when the film reaches its inevitable climax.

The plot’s subtleties draw you in. We discover the number plate of one of the main lead’s car and where that car usually parks. Palmer then follows this lead to the library. He asks the lead questions to which there is a humorous exchange about having to be quiet when in such a public place as a Library. The lead gives palmer a leaflet – an invitation to a bandstand, where is all is revealed. It’s only around fifty minutes in when we discover why the movie is called The Ipcress File – and its important to note, that these events that I have just mentioned don’t flow like an ordinary thriller would. In an ordinary thriller, each segment of information would follow another in a smooth quickly-paced manner – due to the fact that in each and every scene, something else is uncovered.  The Ipcress File doesn’t work like this, there are ten minute sequences in between each moment where information is retrieved.

What happens within these ten minute sequences? Nothing really. So why does the film work? Well, because it unfolds like a normal investigation would: long periods of silence followed by brief bursts of clues and knowledge. If anything, this makes the film more thrilling as it is ambiguous.

Rather than there being so much information that the mystery is impossible to decode, The Ipcress file, instead, gives us merely nothing.

What’s also interesting about the film is the way it made me feel. The film withheld a chlaustophobic hold on me, and I’m still intrigued to how it did this. I got a sense – to use that tireless cliché – that ‘something wasn’t quite right’. This is rather strange. None of the characters ever seem to communicate this notion, and there are no real overt cinematic signals which would suggest that the film was driving towards something deeply sinister.

On a blunt level, I associate this feeling of chlaustrophobic unnerve with that of the horror genre – because it is a ‘negative feeling’ as opposed to a positive one. It is important to remember that horror cinema is more about style than it is about content. Thus, if I look at the film on this level, my feelings acquire a sharper clarity. The film uses obscure, jaunty, bizarre camera angles. This may not seem like much – but this motif is consistent throughout the film – and thus, it felt like it was ‘digging away’ at me.

Perhaps the only fault of the film is shown by it’s merit. I found it strangely unnerving. However, the final act, not so, even though it really should’ve been. I think this is because the final act relies more on content than it does on style – but, I might be wrong.

Every now and then comes a film which challenges me to understand my own emotions. Perhaps the majority of the interest in this film comes from the fact that I should detest it and find it utterly dull, but instead, I feel the exact opposite.


A strange and interesting film which works on a very psychological level. Meticulously slow in its pacing, yet never bland. However, the final Act isn’t as effective emotionally as the initial two.

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