The Ipcress File is a classic film of the Cold War intelligence conflict, the first in which Michael Caine plays Harry Palmer, British spy. It owes something to The Third Man as to it’s camera angles and to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as to its gritty grimness. The Ipcress File was made by some of the James Bond movie people; so, some redemption here. But author Len Deighton is no Graham Greene nor is director Sydney J. Furie a Carol Reed, though Deighton and Furie have distinguished themselves here. Caine’s “Harry Palmer” is superb.
You probably recall the Cold War storyline of the movie. Prominent scientists in Great Britain are disappearing (being “lifted”), and if and when they return, they seem unable to recover their vital scientific inspiration. One of them, bought and brought back by British Intelligence (with the unorthodox, almost criminal Palmer taking the lead) begins an address in what must be a Cambridge lecture room on a topic that sounds like crucial physics applying to weaponry and, sounding his old self when he begins lecturing, suddenly becomes unable to continue explaining his crucial technology.
Palmer cynically keeps trying to uncover the conspiracy.
Eventually a colleague discovers that “Ipcress,” found on a shard of film in the garbage at an old, deserted London factory Palmer leads authorities to just barely too late to Nail The Whole Thing Down, is an acronym for “Induced Psychoneurosis Caused By Extreme Stress.” After that, and after several murders of Palmer’s colleagues in the hunt, Palmer is himself captured by the Bad Guys (faces not shown) and ends up getting the Ipcress treatment. He lands in a cold dungeon he is told is somewhere in Albania–his jailers are dressed in the right uniforms–where he is starved and subjected to cold for several days and then repeatedly subjected to a cacophonous and visually unbalancing extreme form of stress created by a film just like that salvaged on the shard found earlier in the old factory. He is bombarded by almost unbearably dissonant sound waves bearing no intelligent message and visually assaulted by incoherent “psychedelic” light patterns. It’s brainwashing, Gothic version. (It reminds of brainwashed assassins in The Manchurian Candidate and of the kidnapped Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely.)
Caine resists by distracting himself with pain (he’s the hero, after all) and manages to escape his prison and remain his old self. When he scales the prison wall, he discovers he’s in downtown London. What a masterful illusion! He’s been kidnapped and mentally assaulted by a local Evil Media. He now understands what happened to the scientists. When cued by the enemies who brainwashed them–the same enemies who failed to brainwash Palmer–prominent scientific geniuses Britain depends on cannot recover their scientific knowledge.
Of course, one of Palmer’s two superiors in British Intelligence is the traitor who has been running this “brain drain” project, presumably at the behest of the KGB, though actually that foreign influence is never confirmed; it might well be a homegrown malevolence. Naturally, we see the villain, whom the screenwriter has done his best to misdirect us from recognizing, finally fully exposed only in the last seconds of the movie, after great damage has already been done for which there is no immediate repair.
The metaphorical Ipcress File is among the dark Cold War spy dramas, and an indispensable one.