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Spies and secret agents  by Vanessa Mehrabian


The 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 environment.

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 the maelstrom".(4)

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

Other Resources:

Various newspaper editorials from 1965; reviews of "The Ipcress File"(courtesy of "Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) the secret agent's movie site")


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