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The Ipcress File

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

One of the most stylish thrillers ever produced, and also one of the most neglected, The Ipcress File (1965) was directed by the extremely talented and underused Sidney J. Furie, and was the film that really shot Michael Caine to international stardom. As down at the heels undercover agent Harry Palmer, based on Len Deighton’s novels, Caine is thoughtful, circumspect, intelligent but not brilliant, has an eye for the ladies, but isn’t the fantasy figure that James Bond was, and remains, to this day.

The tragic thing is that although there are several more films in the Harry Palmer series, none of them is anywhere near as good as this one, even though Michael Caine starred in them all. The DVD is, believe it or not, superior to the Blu-ray in image quality and definition, to say nothing of image brightness and contrast, and this is a film that simply must be seen in its original Techniscope format. Seldom have the full capabilities of the scope frame been used as they are here; pop, outrageous, and very in-your-face.

Furie’s startling compositions have never been equalled in the cinema, and indeed, he took a lot of flak for his outré sense of framing as the filming unfolded, and the producer, Harry Saltzman, tried to fire him, but was overruled by Caine, and the film’s editor, future director Peter Hunt, who so admired the film that he actually sneaked out with a second unit when he was supposed to be in the cutting room and picked up some shots that were needed for continuity to speed things along.

Saltzman, of course, was producing the Bond films with Albert “Cubby” Broccoli at this point, and Broccoli couldn’t understand why Saltzman would fool around with another secret agent, who was so obviously in competition with the Bond franchise. But then again, Harry Palmer was never really a threat to Bond. He was too downmarket, too much a thinking man’s espionage figure, and the film is much more thoughtful that the usual gadget-filled Bond outing. And, of course, John Barry’s score is absolutely perfect. It’s perhaps the best of all the 60s spy thrillers; do check it out before too long.

Click on the picture above for video clips from the film, with Barry’s superb theme music.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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