1960s clearly saw an emergence of British espionage films, which
were box office hits all around the world. This essay is going to
consider some of the relevant issues in regard to spies and secret
agents in British films from the time. There are various issues that
can be looked at, including some of the characteristics of the genre
itself and the importance of the secret agent as a character. The
case study that is going to be considered in relation to these is
the 1965 spy thriller "The Ipcress File".
Umberto Eco considers some of the
generic features of espionage in relation to the Bond novels, and
these can be said to apply to such films as well. Firstly, Eco
identifies the fact that the universal theme found in espionage
stories is what he describes as "the struggle between good and evil."
(1) The British secret agents, such as Bond or Palmer, are
ultimately portrayed as the force of good, whilst the opposition to
them is the force of evil. This theme can be clearly found in "The
Ipcress File", with the intelligence man Harry Palmer ultimately
facing one of his own superiors as the enemy.
The Cold War had clearly influenced
the opposition faced by James Bond in many of the films, as the
Western world was continually faced with Russia as the ultimate and
most dangerous enemy. Dick Hebdige refers to the way in which "The
Ipcress File" differs from the former convention as "the defection
of a man like Harry Palmer" (2) is in fact directed towards Italy.
Briefly, there are various other
generic conventions which can be found in the Bond films - such as
the depiction of action and modern technology, and the overall
display of a glamorous lifestyle. The "Ipcress File", however,
proved to be the exact opposite to the Bond films as the former
filmconcentrated on displaying a more realistic and working-class
Briefly, "The Ipcress File" is about
Harry Palmer, an intelligence man who is in an awkward position and
has to take on a particular case after the scientist Radcliffe is
kidnapped with a secret file. The investigation proves difficult,
with a secret tape marked "Ipcress" turning up, and it is only
towards the end of the film that Palmer finds out the identity of
the real enemy.
Len Deighton, who wrote "The Ipcress
File" and Harry Salzman, the producer referred to Harry Palmer as
"the thinking man's James Bond". (3) He was deliberately depicted as
an ordinary person, the exact opposite to James Bond, and Michael
Caine brilliantly portrayed the working-class, witty character.
James Pallot and Jacob Levich have in fact argued that the best part
of the movie is the character of Harry Palmer, whom they describe as
"Hardly a superhero, Harry Palmer is an ordinary chap tossed into
This created a character and
atmosphere in the film which makes it a lot more original than the
repeated, glamorised image of James Bond. There are various ways in
which the film creates a truly likeable and realistic character.
Harry Palmer's appearance, for instance, with his overcoat and black
glasses is an important indicator which shows the realism of the
character and the cockney accent is accurate to the character as
well. The character proved to be very appealing to the audience,
especially in Britain, and the film overall proved to be a great
success world wide.
A lot of espionage films are
associated with having foreign and unusual settings. This can
greatly add to the mystique of the story, as the audience in Britain
or America, for instance, find these a lot more exciting as they are
unknown. James Bond films, in particular, have wide-ranging
settings- from tropical islands to snowy mountains. "The Ipcress
File", overall, can be said to depict a lot settings which are found
in everyday life. There is a part in the film in which Harry Palmer
is walking through a busy super- market, as an example, and it is
the location of a work-related meeting.
Overall, it can be concluded that
British spies and secret agents films from the 1960s were seen as
fashionable and cool on the world stage. A lot of the time, such
films depicted the consumerism and excitement of the 1960s, and this
was epitomised by the glamorous lifestyle of James Bond. The
deep-rooted fears from the Cold War, however, can also be clearly
seen in a lot of espionage films from the 1960s.
"The Ipcress File" seems to be a film
which was aiming to counteract the new-found cult status of the Bond
films, and managed to create a film which was described as "funnier
by far than any Bond film and more rewarding too!" (5)
1 Dominic Strinati, An Introduction
to Theories of Popular Culture, Routledge, London, 1997, page 105
2 Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light
On Images and Things, Routledge, London, 1988, page 75
3 Quotation found on "Harry Palmer
(Michael Caine) the secret agent's movie site"
4 James Pallot and Jacob Levich, The
Fifth Virgin Film Guide, London, 1996, page 326
5 "All-Out Critical and Audience
Acclaim for "Ipress File", newspaper editorial from 1965"Harry
Palmer (Michael Caine) the secret agent's movie site"
Hebdige, Dick Hiding in the Light On
Images and Things, London, 1988
Pallot, James and Levich, Jacob The
Fifth Virgin Film Guide, London, 1996
Strinati, Dominic An Introduction to
Theories of Popular Culture, London, 1997
Ed. Walker, John Halliwell's Film &
Video Guide 1999, London, 1998
Various newspaper editorials from
1965; reviews of "The Ipcress File"(courtesy of "Harry Palmer
(Michael Caine) the secret agent's movie site")