Behind the Scenes: “The Ipcress File” (1965)

Producer Joseph E. Levine (The Graduate, 1967) would be cancelled these days for his treatment of Michael Caine back in 1964. Levine had stumped up (along with Paramount) the $1.7 million budget for what was assumed to be the actor’s breakout picture, Zulu (1964), and signed him up to a seven-year contract. Caine would receive $75,000 – his fee for Zulu had been just $10,000 – in his first year, with increments every following year.* But before the film was released Levine rescinded the contract on the basis that Caine “looked like a queer on screen.”

While Zulu was a box office smash in Britain, in the United States  it was a big flop despite the marketing dollars thrown at it by Levine. And nobody needed a younger version of the British stiff- upper-lip. And despite the buzz before the film opened, producers were not clamouring at Caine’s door, the only options on the table a small part in a television production of Hamlet at Elsinore (1964) and the leading role in The Other Man (1964), a television drama about Britain succumbing to the Nazis in 1940. 

That is, until Bond producer Harry Saltzman summoned him to his table in a restaurant and in a conversation that lasted all of two minutes offered him The Ipcress File and a seven-year contract. Aged 32 at this point, Caine was mature enough to be ranked a proper rising star, the casualty rate among the twenty-somethings accorded that status alarmingly high mostly due to their screen immaturity.

However, Saltzman owed his involvement in the picture to another chance meeting. He had been in the United Artists offices in New York when hair product entrepreneur Charles D. Kasher arrived to pitch Len Deighton’s novel The Ipcress File as a potential movie. Saltzman was looking for an alternative to James Bond that would appeal to international audiences with the emphasis on low-cost. He put together the picture on a budget of only $460,000. But the project looked dead in the water when original Hollywood backers Columbia pulled out shorlty before shooting was due to star. Universal saved the day.

Hammer director Jimmy Sangster recommended Canadian director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) who had just turned down A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and just signed up to do indie horror movie Devil Doll (1964) before managing to ease himself out of that contract. 

Caine was far from first choice. Christopher Plummer had chosen The Sound of Music (1965) instead and Richard Harris, a bigger name in Hollywood after MGM roadshow Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) and a critical success after This Sporting Life (1963) turned it down in favour of Sam Peckinpah western Major Dundee (1965). In a bid to give the character the ordinariness he required Harry H. Corbett (Rattle of a Simple Man, 1964) was also considered. Caine had been sharing a flat with Terence Stamp (The Collector, 1963) but when Stamp decamped to America moved in with composer John Barry and was thus the first to hear the music Barry had dreamed up for Goldfinger (1964).

Aware  how easily contracts could be dissolved Caine “stuck to him (Saltzman) like a drowning man to a straw.” Thus, he was present when discussions arose over naming  the spy – anonymous in the book which was written in the first person. It was decided the character should have a dull name. “Harry” was chosen before everyone present realized the producer might just take offence. However, Saltzman’s real first name was Herschel, so he laughed it off.

Saltzman also came up with idea of the character wearing glasses to make him look more ordinary. Caine was short-sighted in real life and always wore glasses and Saltzman noticed how comfortable he was with them, knowing how to handle them properly, unlike clear-sighted actors given spectacles for roles without having any idea what to do with them. It was surprising how fragile the spectacles were, though, Caine getting through the allocated three pairs and new supplies having to be commandeered. Saltzman took the ordinariness too far, suggesting a duel with supermarket trolleys as one of the big fight scenes.

Even though Furie had never met Caine, he disliked him, having come across the actor and his friend Terence Stamp at the White Elephant Club in London.  “I’d see Terence Stamp always there with this other blonde guy who wore glasses,” recollected Furie, “and they were rather chummy and always had these pretty girls at their table, and they were always laughing. And I sort of hated him at the time. Sometimes, I would get a bit drunk and tell whomever I was with, ‘I want to punch that guy in the face.’ I guess I was jealous.”

Joan Collins, completely out of favour in Hollywood and with no roles since The Road to Hong Kong (1962), auditioned – as did the unknown Carol White (Poor Cow, 1967) – for the part of Jean that went to Sue Lyons, in her first featured role. Otherwise, the main roles went to established British character actors including Nigel Green (Zulu), Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape, 1963) and Guy Doleman (Thunderball, 1965)

Interestingly, laughable though it is now, a character who cooked was considered to be gay, even though Palmer clearly used his cooking skills for female seduction. Unfortunately, no great cook himself, Caine was unable to crack two eggs with one hand and the movie used the hands of author Len Deighton, so excellent a cook he had written a cookbook. That explains why the hands that picked up the eggs on screen had blond hairs but the hands that cracked them had black hairs. The cooking scene remained the cause of macho concern, with one U.S. studio executive demanding the scene be re-shot with the woman cooking the meal. 

Director Sidney J. Furie (Wonderful Life/Swingers’ Paradise, 1964) hated the script and demonstrated his loathing by gathering cast and crew together on the first morning of filming and burning the script on the studio floor. While sticking to the basis of the screenplay, characters were encouraged to improvise. The poor script – Kasher had called it “garbage” – was the reason for introducing this kind of style, the script being rewritten as production proceeded.

Furie recalled, “All day there were two writers writing our scenes for the next day…We knew where we had to get to because Harry Saltzman, the producer, had ordered the set for the climax built, so we were stuck with it.” If the pages didn’t turn up, Furie found ways to instigate delay, getting the cameramen spending an inordinate amount of time lighting a scene. Furie sipped whisky in his Scotch all day, not enough to be inebriated but “it would help me go with my gut.”  The full complement of  writers involved in the script were James Doran and W. H. Canaway plus uncredited contributions from Lukas Heller (The Dirty Dozen, 1967) , Lionel Davidson (source author for Agent 8 ¾, 1964) , Ken Hughes (The Trials of Oscar Wilde, 1960) and Johanna Harwood (Dr No, 1962). 

Furie’s style on The Ipcress File was very distinctive – “scenes where you had someone’s shoulder blocking the screen and you could only see three quarters of the screen…If you try to use the screen the way a painter uses a canvas, somehow it’s not considered acceptable.”

Furie and Saltzman did not get on, the producer loathing what he saw as the director’s stylistic excesses and was convinced he required editor Peter Hunt to rescue the project once shooting was complete. For his part, Furie’s definition of producers was “the people who tried to wreck the movie.” Explained the director, “I was very depressed always when we started shooting, thinking that it was going to be really lousy and I didn’t know what to do, so I told myself I would come up with a style of shooting that is different. I put shoulders across the screen, I shot up at things, I shot down, just to make it different, to give it ambiance. It was done out of insecurity.”

At one point the director quit the set, resulting in a chase through London with the producer’s Rolls Royce in pursuit of the London bus on which the director had escaped. However, Furie  conceded, “The movie would not have gotten made without him (Saltzman) and his devotion to seeing it through, considering the problems with Universal, no matter how much I fought with him during the making of it.

To Saltzman’s astonishment when Peter Hunt arrived and examined the dailies he told the producer “this is the most brilliant footage I’ve ever seen” In order to convince the producer that it was all going to work, Hunt edited together the sequence where, with a marching band in the background, Nigel Green marches in step to the tempo followed by “dialogue between Green and Guy Doleman, carefully intercut with their closed umbrellas stepping with them in motion…Once I assured him (Saltzman) it would be a good film, he started getting confident.”

While British critics lauded the picture, its reception Stateside was mixed, “though the public weighed in heavily with its money”  – Variety noting not just that it was “short on thrills,” over-stylised, and could do with being a “a trifle more lively,” the overall verdict being that it was “so soft-pedalled that the audience will be screaming for more kicks” of the Bond kind.

*NOTE: In his autobiography Caine stated his $75,000 annual salary would double every year. That doesn’t sound right. A second year of $150,000 and even a third of $300,000 might be acceptable for a rising star. But if you were looking at $600,000 for his fourth year and $1.2 million for his fifth up to $4.8 million for the final year, that would make him by the end of the decade easily the highest-paid star in Hollywood. Caine would need to be working like a Trojan, four or five films a year, to come anywhere close to earning such sums and his movies would all have to be big hits. Of course, to cover his costs, Levine could farm him out to other studios, but even so, it was a disproportionate amount for any actor to earn. Even John Wayne and Steve McQueen would not pull in such a salary by 1971. 

SOURCES: Daniel J. Kremer, Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films (University of Kentucky Press, 2015), p74-84; Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (Arrow Books, 1993) p189-190, 195-210; Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood (Hodder and Stoughton, 2010), p85-90; Paul Rowlands, Interview with Sidney J. Furie, Money into Light website, 2017.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

3 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “The Ipcress File” (1965)”

  1. From what I read online Deighton was unhappy with the first script of Ipcress and I think the working script involved a change of writers, those being Bill Canaway and James Doran. The novel was a challenge for any screenwriter since the plot is serpentine and not like the linear plots of the James Bond novels. And the overseas scenes in the novel were cut. According to the Deighton Dossier the author had a multiple film deal and did not want to see it screwed up with a bad screenplay. Is it true that Billion Dollar Brain did not do as well as they had hoped and that Caine’s hopes of a Harry Palmer franchise, like that of Bond, were disappointed?

    Liked by 1 person

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