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been just $10,000 – in his first year, with increments every following year.* But before the film was released Levine rescinded the contract on the basis that Caine “looked like a queer on screen.”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.

The Bond They Couldn’t Sell – “Dr No” (1962)

United Artists almost had to give away this picture in the United States in order to gain bookings. Astonishingly, it was the picture the studio felt it could not sell. And for good reason – the studio hated it. “To them it was a B-picture,” recalled producer Harry Saltzman. “They said Hammer made the same kind of picture for one-third of the price.”

Dr No, produced on a miserly budget of $840,000 – $40,000 over budget –  had triumphed in London after snagging an opening run in 1962 at the Leicester Square Theatre primarily because the cinema needed to fulfil its quota of showing British pictures. Although it set a London box office record that would stand for more than a decade and proved a huge draw throughout Britain, U.S. studio United Artists had been burned once too often by British films that did well at home only to flop spectacularly in America.

Since box office statistics began to be gathered in earnest in the 1930s only a handful of British pictures mustered the $1 million in rentals required for entry into the annual list of box office champions. The bulk of the Ealing comedies had not made the grade, nor had such diverse successes as Doctor in the House (1954), Reach for the Sky (1956), Room at the Top (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). American audiences rejected British films as too slow, technically backward, and with accents it was often impossible to understand. Putting together an advertising, public relations and marketing package for them could easily cost as much as the film itself.

“When we had an answer print ready there were about eight people from United Artists including (chairman) Arthur Krim who came to see it,” Saltzman told Variety a quarter of a century later. “We started the film at 10am and when it was over a few minutes before twelve the lights came up and nobody said anything except a man who was head of the European operation and he said, ‘the only good thing about the picture is that we can only lose $840,000.’ Cubby (Broccoli) and I were just shattered,” confessed Saltzman.

That didn’t stop Saltzman and Broccoli embarking on their own campaign to raise awareness. They went right to the heart of the American exhibition community, taking space at the annual Show-a-Rama event in Kansas City in March, bringing along Sean Connery and models to represent the Bond girls. In addition, around the same time UA held a sneak preview in New York attended by the likes of Johnny Carson, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Rudy Vallee i.e. not that high-falutin’ an audience but at least the festivities were filmed and broadcast on NBC Monitor and Armed Forces Radio. Sean Connery also featured in a 12-minute segment in the middle of ABC Sunday Night at the Movies.

The Bond promotional bandwagon set up shop for a couple of days each in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles between March 7 and March 15 and pulled in journalists from the surrounding areas. There was also a touring show comprising 150 stills. And the marketeers had some success in targeting exhibitors through the trade magazines although the two-page article featuring in Box Office attempted to interest exhibitors on the basis of a marketing campaign in Connery’s native Scotland, which hardly seemed to be ideally suited. Nor did the marketing team really care what tricks exhibitors pulled to bring in the customers – for no particular reason one cinema employed a safe-cracking stunt even though the film’s story did not lend itself to that.

Dr No’s biggest marketing tools were photos of Ursula Andress in a bikini and copies of the Ian Fleming novels which since 1961 had the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy. Cheap paperbacks sold in drug stores and newsstands had created greater awareness of the character as well as acting as unpaid advertising for the forthcoming film.

But, basically, that was as much – or as little – as the film had going for it. In effect, no great marketing energy.

As it happened, exhibitors were beginning to organise their own marketing programs – “box office building campaigns” – and the Bond team were able to convince exhibitors in the Midwest and Southwest to kick off the idea with Dr No.

That meant shifting away from the conventional release pattern where a film opened in one cinema in a big city and then fanned out week-by-week to smaller venues and towns. Instead it was everywhere all at once which meant it cannibalized its own audience since it could not be held over in any cinema for a further week because the prints were already scheduled elsewhere.

Although most historians pinpoint New York as the launch pad for Dr No, United Artists did not want to risk the picture potentially flopping in that territory.  According to Harry Saltzman the first commercial showing, effectively a trial run, was in Atlanta, Georgia, where it ran for eleven weeks and was considered a success. But not enough for UA to consider shifting its release strategy. A movie that launched anywhere other than New York was considered a dodgy proposition.

From May 8 it was launched in 450 cinemas in the Midwest and southwest. This was the same release strategy as had been employed on another film about which UA had its commercial doubts – The Magnificent Seven (1960) – and that had turned into a flop. It opened in New York in June in 18 cinemas including two in the city centre, the Astor and the Murray Hill, both arthouses.

But here’s the kicker.

In order to get the bookings, United Artists had to dramatically lower its asking price.

Normally new pictures were sold to exhibitors on a 50/50 basis – meaning the studio received 50 per cent of the gross. “The funny things is,” recalled Saltzman, “they booked it for 30 percent. The theaters took it at first because they got it for 30 per cent.” That meant UA sold Dr No to cinemas on the basis that any exhibitor booking the picture would retain 70 per cent of the gross.

This was not unheard-of. In fact, it was often the standard deal for foreign movies going into arthouses. But arthouse pictures with the occasional exception of a La Dolce Vita were usually hard sells to a very finite audience. James Bond was anything but.

As a result of this approach, the movie did not register particularly well on the annual box office rankings. In fact, it placed 42nd. Not a disaster, but not a particularly brilliant showing. However, that did not represent the film’s true appeal. Had it been sold on a 50/50 basis, the rentals would have been high enough to pitch it just outside the Top 20, which would been seen as a genuine success. On the other hand, if UA had not been so generous in handing the exhibitors the bigger share of the box office, perhaps it might have elicited far fewer bookings and the James Bond story might have been completely different.

SOURCES: “United Artists Sell Campaign in Its Dr No Film,” Box Office, February 25, 1963, p10;  “Festivities Mark Dr No Sneak Preview in New York,” Box Office, March 11, 1963, pE-2; “450 Situations Play Dr No at Opening,” Variety, April 3, 1963, 19; “Producer Saltzman Faces Big Decision on 2nd James Bond Thriller,” Variety, April 25, 1962, p13; “Feature Reviews,” Box Office, April 1, 1953 pA-11; “Showmandiser: Premiere Showmen Say Yes to Dr No, Ticket Buyers Too,” Box Office, April 29, 1963, pA1; “Harry Saltzman Recalls Early Coolness to Bond Features,” Variety, May 13, 1987, p57; “Dr No in 17 Theatres,” Box Office, May 27, 1963, pE-8; “Picture Grosses,” Variety, June 5, 1963, p10; “Smash Business General for 4-Day Holiday,” Box Office, June 10, 1963, pE-2; “Box Office Barometer,” Box Office, June 17, 1963, pA3; “Safe Crackers Invited,” Box Office, June 24, 1963, pA3.

Discover WordPress

A daily selection of the best content published on WordPress, collected for you by humans who love to read.

The Atavist Magazine

by Brian Hannan

WordPress.com News

The latest news on WordPress.com and the WordPress community.