Three Non-Bonds: The Strange Tale of the Harry Palmer Trilogy

Harry Palmer’s personal file reads like a permanent record: “Insubordinate, insolent, a trickster…perhaps with criminal tendencies.” When his new boss, another stiff-upper-lip with a patriotic apathy for human life, reads it back to him, Palmer cocks a proper Jack-the-Lad grin and admits, “Yeah, that’s a pretty fair appraisal, sir.”

In author Len Deighton’s world of espionage, there are no heroes or villains, just contractors and con artists who sometimes forget which flag is pinned to their lapel. Over the course of five novels, Deighton’s unnamed agent toils away in workaday squalor for WOOC(P), a British Intelligence unit that also goes unnamed, though the P may or may not stand for Provisional. Most of his life is spent in the perpetual gray of London, assuming the same color in departmental meetings and keeping a paranoid eye between blinds in his flat. The only vice he knows is cooking, a shared passion with Deighton, who doubled for Palmer’s hands in the kitchen scenes. If James Bond works for Queen and Country, Deighton’s man works for pension and procedure.

Harry Saltzman, half of the Powers That Be behind Bond’s early cinematic success, had vested interest in the difference: Every red-blooded producer in the world wanted their own 007 franchise and he already had one. Instead of burying the anonymous spy in shameless imitation, Saltzman wanted him as-is, headier counterprogramming for audiences who’d had enough cereal-box gadgetry. Naming the character was as easy as casting him – when Harry Saltzman asked Michael Caine for the most boring name he could think of, he said “Harry” without hesitation.

In all the ways that James Bond could be played with equal credibility by a rough-edged Scot, an untrained Australian, and a Welsh Shakespearean, Harry Palmer couldn’t be played by anyone else but Michael Caine. Even if certain characters and farther-flung locales were lost in the translation, the man on the screen and the narrator on the page are one in the same.

The Ipcress File introduces him in appropriately modest style, refusing to open his eyes as he grinds the morning coffee. Palmer works the Boonton Insta-Brewer with the same mechanical grace that his contemporaries save for assembling sniper rifles. Despite the murderer’s row of Bond veterans behind the camera – series composer John Barry, editor Peter Hunt, production designer and father of the volcano lair Ken Adams – Ipcress looks and sounds closer to film noir than spy-fi. Palmer’s bosses are framed like monuments to forgotten wars and move about as much. Scenes aren’t staged but surveilled, peeked at through keyholes and stolen from the cross-hatched glass of phone booths. Abiding by his own famed acting advice, Caine never blinks, turning Palmer’s iconic Curry & Paxton sunglasses into half-lidded security cameras. Always rolling, never surprised, like the mod jazz that follows him around and the skeptical dulcimer that so often interrupts it.

Saltzman’s game worked. Newsweek called Ipcress “the thinking man’s Goldfinger.” Variety deemed it the “Anti-Bond.” The secret ingredient was director Sidney J. Furie, a toiling Canadian ex-pat hungry to make his mark. The film’s climax, the IPCRESS in Ipcress File, could pass for lesser climax on Batman. Furie makes it torture, only the latest diplomatic screw turned on Palmer’s continued employment. During a parking garage trade of money for man, Harry Palmer is just another suit holding a submachine gun, watching the slow-motion waltz and hoping nobody steps on the wrong foot. It’s a sequence the sequels never quite match for soot-black beauty and clockwork suspense. Furie’s work won the film a BAFTA and a nomination for the Palme d’Or.

Saltzman hated Furie regardless and swapped him out with Guy Hamilton, director of the non-thinking man’s Goldfinger, to handle the sequel, Funeral in Berlin. Due to his own illicit past, the same that keeps him unhappily blackmailed into service, Harry Palmer is enlisted to aid in the defection of a Soviet colonel. When he arrives, Palmer finds a familiar house of cards no more structurally sound than the other bombed-out ruins of East Berlin. Considering Saltzman’s disdain for Furie’s visual eccentricities, the sequel’s conventionality is as much a feature as it is a flaw.

Funeral in Berlin may be the shortest of the three pictures, but it feels the longest. This is cloak and dagger played at realistic, agonizing speed. Most of the first hour is spent on loaded conversations under cover of urban decay, Palmer’s security camera eyes waiting for old friends to blink first. Names, real and otherwise, litter the ground like spent bullet casings. Miss a line and the whole plot changes. Palmer gets no such luxury. Neither does the viewer.

Funeral in Berlin is just as unforgiving on the eyes. Hamilton and series cinematographer Otto Heller shoot the city like a charcoal relief. The only thing separating Palmer from the expressionist sprawl trying to swallow him is his trusty trenchcoat. The grit gets under your nails, thanks in no small part to Hamilton’s personal experience in World War II. Even Konrad Elfer’s score has less play to it than Barry’s, sneaking only a little jazz into its sarcastic military march. As a result, Funeral plays like historical reenactment, as close to the real deal as legally permitted – Ian Fleming, a fan, correctly guessed Deighton’s career in military intelligence based on the detail of his books. Early on, Palmer laments the stuffy name given in his falsified passport. When asked for a request, he offers “Rock Hunter.” Not in this movie. Not for this spy.

By the beginning of Billion Dollar Brain, Harry Palmer isn’t a spy at all. He’s given it up for the grimy life of a private investigator; he even has taped-up clippings of Bogart and Batman to prove it. But then an anonymous phone call from somebody with a robotic voice drags him back into a business where “What’s the catch?” and “Who gets killed?” are entirely different questions. In a move that all parties would later regret, provocateur-in-training Ken Russell took over directing duties, making the big-budget sequel his second-ever feature film. As a result, in all the ways Funeral was staid, Brain is bananas.

Palmer is jerked from one end of the globe to the other, then back again to uncover the next non sequitur clue. Heller shoots it all like a gauzy dream. Coupled with Richard Rodney Bennett’s gorgeous score, all twinkling piano and woozy theremin, the most mundane action, like a short jaunt on snowmobiles, becomes avant garde ads for men’s winterwear. In Ipcress, the camera was always watching Harry. In Funeral, the camera was always abandoning him. In Brain, the camera is Harry, hot-zooming in and out on byzantine parapets of old cathedrals and gilded murals of brave men on horseback. He’s a professional tourist forced to gawk at one sight after the next, given as little context as he can piece together himself. Trust is psychosexual – men undressing in front of each other is the currency of good faith – and the apocalypse is bad Freud – a fleet of tanker trucks ready to spill armies of men in white fatigues and smooth helmets.

It was too weird for audiences and critics in 1967, just six months after Sean Connery’s first retirement with You Only Live Twice. Box office receipts killed the planned sequel, Horse Under Water, based on another Deighton novel. But watched now, the strange third-act turn is a perfect retirement for Palmer. 

He finally traces all the computerized orders to a concrete Oz in Texas. The closest thing in the series to a Bond villain’s lair belongs to General Midwinter, a right-wing oil tycoon of vague military background who hasn’t crossed a border in 25 years, but still doesn’t trust anybody on the other side. He only talks business over the roar of machine gun fire. In disturbing montage, Midwinter screams about the saving graces of capitalism as portraits of Communist leaders shrivel away in a bonfire and his giddy followers square-dance the night away beneath bronze eagles holding the company logo, a Swastika with two broken arms.

The Ipcress File is about war as it could’ve been. Funeral in Berlin is about war as it was, circa 1966. Billion Dollar Brain is about war as it soon would be, forever and ever, amen. 

The series ends as it begins, with Harry Palmer standing in front of his boss, staring into his bureaucratic death mask, and asking for a raise. His odds do not improve. At least some things never change.

Jeremy Herbert enjoys frozen beverages, loud shirts and drive-in theaters. When not writing about movies, he makes them for the price of a minor kitchen appliance. Jeremy lives in Cleveland, and if anyone could show him the way out, he'd really appreciate it.

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