The Ipcress File – still hip at 50
Shortly before eight o’clock on the morning of 21 September 1964, 31-year-old Michael Caine made his way through the early morning traffic circling London’s Victoria Station, and stepped into the vacant five-storey building at 28-30 Grosvenor Gardens that would serve as both the principal location and the production offices for The Ipcress File for the next two months.
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Scene 17 was the first to be shot that Monday, a two-hander with Caine and Welsh actor Howell Evans: one minute 17 seconds of screen time. A room on the top floor had been dressed to look like an observation post inside a derelict house, with pin-ups on the peeling walls, a couple of military-style folding beds, and an arsenal of surveillance equipment. Their dialogue was a brief, needling exchange, characteristic of the cool, laconic tone that would be forged over the 65-day shoot.
The Ipcress File proved to be a transforming event in the careers of both Caine and director Sidney Furie, a mass-audience masterpiece that remains an influential fixture of many top-100 lists today. Adapted from Len Deighton’s critically lauded novel of the same name, the movie offers a prism through which to view a city and a people on the threshold of modernising change in a time of Cold War paranoia.
Produced by Harry Saltzman, it opened 50 years ago at London’s Leicester Square Theatre on 18 March 1965, and immediately broke box-office records as long lines formed around the block. The movie enjoyed a similar reception in New York, where it opened at the Coronet Theater in August, quickly followed by a key-city release across the United States. Like many productions, it had been shaped by compromises, yet its uncertain path became the foundation for an across-the-board hit driven by outstanding word-of-mouth in almost every market it played.
Anchored by Michael Caine’s widely hailed performance as Harry Palmer, its many virtues – not least Furie’s rejection of visual conventions, the frugal design masterminded by Ken Adam, and John Barry’s cimbalom-infused soundtrack – give The Ipcress File an identity independent of Deighton’s novel, existing on its own terms and easy to champion as a standout among spy movies of any decade.
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