There is a brain drain, with British scientists either leaving the country or suddenly losing their creativity: some of them dry up, almost over night. Radcliffe, a top physicist, and seemingly healthy after his recent captivity, is suddenly unable to remember his groundbreaking work when he stands up to give a lecture – he appears to have been brain washed. A sinister figure, code name Bluejay, a naturalised Albanian, is suspected of kidnapping scientists in order to sell them on the black market. Later we discover he de-programmes the boffins through psychological conditioning. Like the influence of the Nouvelle Vague the science is another kind of decoration, here picking up the popular fears of Skinnerian Behaviourism,[i] Vance Packard’s subliminal advertising, and William M. Whyte’s corporate profiling, to create a plot reminiscent of The Manchurian Candidate, but with a significant difference: the Cold War theme is fused with one about big business. Two fears are merged into a single national threat; while the involvement of the CIA suggests the anxieties of a Britain falling increasingly under the influence of the United States.[ii]
It has lots of style. Caine is perfect. His role fits the times like a bespoke suit: a lower class trickster who is useful for the establishment; and whose history of petty crime appears moral when compared to the machinations of his superiors. Harry Palmer is very human. He hates bureaucracy, but is sympathetic to individual people; and is obsessed with “birds”, which actually softens him - he likes women, and seems positively affected by them. His superiors are not so gentle. They are all army men, and treat the world as a game, and the people in it as things. It is a fair summation of the careless inhumanity of a government department or a corporate management team.
The Ipcress File is the revolt of the little man against the big bureaucracies; and who can resist even the most sophisticated of conditioning, providing he fights for his freedom, and endures the pain that it will cause. The film has all the optimism of the early Sixties when the establishment looked ready to fall.
[ii] This is rather jokingly brought out in a scene in an “American supermarket”, where Palmer and his old boss Ross have a conversation. It is something of a shock to realise that something so ubiquitous as the local supermarket is a comparatively recent American invention.