The Ipcress File opened at London's Leicester Square Theatre fifty years ago on March 18, 1965. It quickly established an all-time house record in daily take and admissions as long lines formed around the block, and enjoyed a similar success in almost every market it played.
Could it have been bettered? Perhaps not, yet every film carries its share of intriguing backstage secrets. Recently discovered correspondence and diaries reveal a pivotal sequence might have been very different, and made movie history, had constraints not been imposed on the production.
Producer Harry Saltzman read Len Deighton's debut novel before publication, promptly acquired the rights, and turned to screenwriter Lukas Heller to transform the nameless narrator into Harry Palmer, whose defiance and insubordination anchor the audience's point-of-view. Heller retained the London framework, but an overseas sequence that adds dramatic heft to the plot became problematic for reasons no one had anticipated. Mid-point in the novel the action moves from London to an American nuclear test in the Pacific, where the narrator is framed as a traitor, abducted and transferred to a secret prison somewhere for brainwashing. In late July 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and Britain agreed to a moratorium on all nuclear testing (save underground). In Britain, the Great Train Robbery eclipsed news of the Partial Test Ban Treaty, but not before Heller recognised the ban rendered the novel's Pacific setting obsolete.
So he switched the location to Cape Canaveral in Florida, the space launch complex operated by the United States Air Force and NASA, and at that time "the most vital and most intensely exciting place in the country" according to veteran NBC correspondent Jay Barbree. The widescreen potential of its techno-military topography was the draw: a breathtaking grid of multi-level launch gantries the height of 30-storey apartment buildings flanked by flame deflectors, windowless blockhouses, tracking radar systems, and an unprecedented array of umbilical hoses and cable runs providing life-support to the concrete launch pads.
Shooting at Cape Canaveral would also position Ipcress well commercially, and make it the first major feature to film inside the Florida launch facility. Spaceflight and technoculture were gaining an increasing hold on the public imagination. As early as 1959, Richard Avedon had used the Cape as the backdrop for a 9-page fashion spread in Harper's Bazaar, and as the 1960s progressed, the space race and its iconography became a shorthand for modernism, an optimistic symbol of progress avidly embraced by mass culture - fashion, advertising, design, pop art, music, television and movies, and even architecture. Its ability to excite and entertain an eager public provided Saltzman an irresistible coat-tail to ride. "Harry was a great showman. He was galvanised by any sort of adventure," says Sir Ken Adam, the Oscar-winning production designer whose expressionist sets defined the Cold War aesthetic of the Bond films and The Ipcress File.
Over the next twelve months a further five writers worked on the script, Michael Caine was contracted to play Harry Palmer, and Sidney Furie hired to direct the film. Then in the summer of 1964 Columbia Pictures withdrew its support. Saltzman was forced to move quickly to cut costs and scrubbed the overseas locations in Beirut and at the Cape, before convincing the Rank Organisation and Universal Pictures to provide the necessary distribution guarantees to meet a reduced budget.
The Ipcress File went before the cameras on Monday September 21, 1964, set almost entirely in London. The abduction of Harry Palmer, to have been shot at the Cape, was instead folded into a brief noirish scene on a trans-European railway journey. Seized on the Train Bleu bound for the French Riviera, Palmer awakens in a prison cell ostensibly behind the Iron Curtain (Bulgaria in early drafts, later changed to Albania) and is plunged into a gruelling programming sequence. His dramatic escape over the walls and the audience's shock at recognising the prison's location, make it one of the most talked about sequences in the film.
The Ipcress File was never just a spy movie, as Deighton's novel was always more than a Cold War thriller. The financial constraints almost certainly resulted in a more authentic, compelling film. Nevertheless, one wonders what Sidney Furie would have made of Cape Canaveral's 'Missile Row' and adjacent launch pads, what kind of unique record he might have given us of an era whose past is today resident in a wilderness of vegetation and broken concrete ...
PS: I believe the 1965 Italian production Una Moglie Americana ('Run for Your Wife') was the first major feature to shoot inside the launch facility.
Edward Milward-Oliver is currently writing a biography of Len Deighton. His moviegraphicThe Ipcress File: Still hip at 50marks the 50th anniversary of the movie.