A top British scientist, Dr Radcliffe (Aubrey Richards), is being escorted to the railway station by one of the Secret Service, because there has been a spate of these men either giving up their work here and moving abroad to continue it, or simply rejecting their past findings in a curious example of selective amnesia. There doesn't appear to be any danger that Radcliffe will do the same, but the authorities think that he's better safe than sorry, and once he is in his compartment the agent bids him farewell. On returning to the car, he discovers a camera left behind, so rushes back to the carriage - and sees the scientist has gone...
The Ipcress File was the first in a series of three spy movies based on the novels of Len Deighton, and generally considered the best of the bunch, although they all have elements to recommend them. Back in the sixties, it seemed everyone in action or suspense movies wanted to be James Bond, and the Harry Palmer character (never named as such on the page) was intended to be a reaction to those glossy adventures. Yet as the same personnel behind that franchise produced this, it was actually as much in the thrall of 007's glamour as any of the other imitators, being less The Spy Who Came in from the the Cold than an espionage thriller stuck in dreary London.
Michael Caine, who had recently found fame in Zulu, was the man of the moment and cemented his reputation as a face of the era with hits like this. Much was made of Palmer, as depicted by Caine, being a very unlikely hero in comparison to his contemporaries with his glasses and love of cookery (Deighton wrote books and columns on cooking as well), but with his insolence and personality of a man on the up and up in a society used to keeping his sort down, he was more typical of what was to come than many would admit. You can tell that the establishment were not entirely ready to accept his sort by the way Palmer is punished for not knowing his place.
This naturally is as much a source of the film's tension as the whole East versus West shenanigans that forms the basis of the plot, and it's a pleasure to see the proudly working class Caine cross verbal swords with his bosses on the other side of the class divide, first Ross (Guy Doleman), and then the Major he is assigned to, Dalby (Nigel Green). The storyline is deliberately obscure, and could have been dryly handled, but although they would not agree, the producers had a stroke of luck when they hired Sidney J. Furie. He hated the script (he burned his on the first day of shooting to make a point, then, er, had to borrow Caine's!), but his contempt for the material had an unforeseen effect.
This was that to jazz it all up, Furie took to shooting everything in an exceedingly eccentric (for 1965) style, with an action scene filmed from afar inside a telephone box, or with the camera placed just behind the actors who loom into the frame, or even through the backs of chairs and the cracks between doors. There was a time that this stopped looking flashy and modern and ended up appearing quaintly dated, but now it has gone back to looking arresting and splendidly of its time, if no less unconventional. It certainly helps to generate interest in the labyrinth that is the puzzle of who is doing what to whom, and by the time we are aware there is a double agent in the British ranks, the only thing we're sure of is that it's not Palmer. Poor Palmer: he had something to prove, but ended up in the role of the pawn he resisted for so long. If The Ipcress File has lost a measure of its suspense in the years since, it remains well worth seeing. Marvellous music by Bond's John Barry.