DirectorSidney J. Furie/Guy Hamilton/Ken Russell
Release Date(s)1965-1967 (October 29, 2021)
Studio(s)Rank Film Distributors (Imprint/Via Vision)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: A
- Overall Grade: A
[Editor’s Note: The Blu-ray discs in this release are REGION-FREE.]
Harry Palmer is a name that isn’t as well-remembered today as James Bond, but the bespectacled working-class spy played by Michael Caine was featured in three films during the Sixties, sharing DNA with his more famous cousin. Producer Harry Saltzman had partnered with Cubby Broccoli to bring Fleming’s master spy to the screen, but as that franchise turned more fantastic, he was looking for a down-to-earth alternative. He found it in the anonymous hero of Len Deighton’s The Ipcress File, who was christened “Harry Palmer” for the film adaptation, and a new series was born. Saltzman hedged his bets by borrowing some of his Bond crew for The Ipcress File, including editor Peter Hunt, composer John Barry, and production designer Ken Adam. The sequel Funeral in Berlin used director Guy Hamilton as well as Adam, and the third film Billion Dollar Brain even brought aboard title designer Maurice Binder. Yet these films are still quite distinct from the Bond franchise in terms of content, tone, and style. Most importantly, they’re all driven by the very different persona that lies at their core.
Harry Palmer wasn’t exactly the antithesis of James Bond. He had an eye for the ladies, but had to work a bit harder to catch their attention. He had an appreciation for fine food, but was forced to learn to cook for himself. Because of his somewhat checkered past, he had to make do with the salary of a low-level government employee. He didn't have access to Aston Martins and clever gadgets, and had to settle for taxicabs and reams of boring paperwork instead. Rather than being a blunt instrument like Bond, Palmer tended to serve as pawn in games played above his pay grade. Yet as embodied by Michael Caine, he wasn’t without his own particular charms. Caine’s biggest gift has always been his inherent likability, putting it to good use as Palmer.
Caine later returned to play Harry Palmer in two different made-for-television movies in the Nineties, neither of them based on any of Deighton’s books: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St. Petersburg. Nothing could ever quite capture the magic of the original films, however, as they are indelible products of their time and place.
The Ipcress File was adapted by screenwriters Bill Canaway and James Doran, along with a host of uncredited writers (including Bond veteran Johanna Harwood). They greatly streamlined Deighton’s novel, focusing on the primary thread that was contained in the title. In this story, Palmer’s superior officer Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) transfers him to a unit led by Major Dalby (Nigel Green), where they’re tracking down the latest in a string of government scientists who have gone missing. There, Palmer teams up with Jock (Gordon Jackson) to figure out what happened, and he begins to realize that there may be more going on with his agency than meets the eye. The Ipcress File also stars Sue Lloyd, Aubrey Richards, and Frank Gatliff.
Director Sidney J. Furie brought a wild sense of style to The Ipcress File, making frequent use of Dutch angles, and also taking advantage of the deeper focus afforded by shooting in Techniscope to compose shots that looked past foreground elements, and sometimes even through them. He treated the camera as an active participant in the process of spying on everything, and by extension, the viewer as well. Saltzman wasn’t happy with this approach, so he locked Furie out of the editing room. Saltzman would later claim that he had fired Furie early during the production, and that editor Peter Hunt had actually finished the film—a claim that Hunt denied, which is supported by the fact that Hunt’s own films as director looked nothing like this one. Regardless of any such behind-the-scenes chaos, The Ipcress File remains one of the most stylish and memorable efforts in the cycle of spy films that followed on the heels of James Bond’s cinematic debut in Dr. No.
Cinematographer Otto Heller shot The Ipcress File on 35 mm film in 2-perf Techniscope using spherical lenses, which was then optically blown up into 4-perf anamorphic release prints at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Via Vision’s Blu-ray uses the same 2K master that ITV provided to Kino Lorber for their US release of the film, and while there’s no other information available regarding the elements that were used, it was likely an anamorphic 4-perf interpositive. The grain is prominent, though it’s relatively even, and there’s very little damage visible. The color balance looks natural, with good contrast and black levels, though there may be a bit of crush in some of the darkest scenes. Short of a new scan of the original Techniscope negative, this is probably the best that The Ipcress File will look.
Audio is offered in an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio remix, as well as the original theatrical mono in English 2.0 LCPM, with optional English SDH subtitles included. This is one case where the original mono is preferable to the remix—the multichannel track provides separation, but it does so at the expense of burying John Barry’s score deeper in the mix. The two tracks are mastered at different levels, but even accounting for that fact by raising the volume of the 5.1 version to match the mono, the music still sounds more recessed relative to the dialogue and effects. Once level matched, the 5.1 track may have a bit more dynamics while the mono is somewhat compressed in comparison, but that doesn’t change the difference in balance. Since Barry’s music is so important to the effectiveness of the film as a whole, the mono track is the clear choice.
THE IPCRESS FILE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) A-/B+/B+
Funeral in Berlin was adapted by screenwriter Evan Jones, based on Deighton’s third book in the series—skipping over the second, Horse Under Water, which ended up never reaching the screen. While Jones made his own share of adjustments to the narrative, on the whole his script follows the novel more closely than The Ipcress File did. In this story, Colonel Ross (Doleman again) sends Palmer to Berlin to assist in the defection of the Russian officer Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka, who chews scenery with abandon). Along the way, Palmer enlists the help of an old associate, Johnny Vulcan (Paul Hubschmid), and becomes involved with a beautiful model (Eva Renzi), who needless to say isn’t quite what she seems. Actually, nothing is as it seems, and Palmer once again finds himself being used, this time by parties on both sides of the Berlin Wall.
Since Saltzman was dissatisfied with Sidney J. Furie’s stylistic choices in The Ipcress File, he played it safe this time by hiring Goldfinger veteran Guy Hamilton to direct. Hamilton handled everything in his typically workmanlike fashion, which actually wasn’t a bad thing in this case—the plot was much more complicated, so the extra visual flourishes might have proved distracting. The film was shot on location in Berlin, which gave it a nice air of authenticity. (There’s a fascinating shot where Caine travels through the very real Checkpoint Charlie.) Minus the conflict between Saltzman and Furie, this production went a bit more smoothly, though there were still a few sparks as Hamilton and Renzi didn’t see eye-to-eye. None of that shows in the finished film, which works well in its own way, even if it wasn’t as well-received critically as The Ipcress File.
Cinematographer Otto Heller returned for Funeral in Berlin, this time shooting in 35 mm Panavision with anamorphic lenses, once again framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. This is the same master that Paramount used for their own Blu-ray release of the film, and it’s a dated one with a few problematic elements. The opening titles are windowboxed, and they even display signs of their anamorphic squeeze (watch the shot of the couple walking down an alley toward the camera). The grain is more subdued than it is in The Ipcress File, but there’s light damage visible throughout such as speckling and small scratches. There’s some ringing from artificial sharpening visible at times, and the blacks are a bit crushed as well. At least one shot at the 1:25:11 mark displays minor instability. With all of that out of the way, it’s an otherwise decent transfer, with a brighter color balance than The Ipcress File—greener grass, for example—though it still remains relatively subdued for the East Berlin setting.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LCPM, with optional English SDH subtitles. The dialogue is clear, though there’s awkward ADR inherent in the original track. The score by Konrad Elfers also has an occasional touch of distortion to it, but it sounds fine overall—the biggest issue is that it simply can’t compare to Barry’s wonderful score for The Ipcress File.
FUNERAL IN BERLIN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) B/B-/B-
For the third Harry Palmer film, Saltzman opted for Deighton’s fourth novel, Billion Dollar Brain. The adaptation by John McGrath hews closer to the book than either of the two previous films, with only a few minor changes—the most significant being the opening and the ending. In this story, Palmer has left the British service and is working as a sleazy private investigator, but Colonel Ross (Doleman, for the third and final time) once again has other plans for him. Yet it’s really an old friend of Palmer’s, Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), who successfully drags the reluctant agent back into a scheme involving dangerous viruses and an American paramilitary organization run by the mad General Midwinter (Ed Begley). Along the way, he works with an alluring woman of questionable loyalty (Françoise Dorleac) and his old frenemy Col. Stok (Oscar Homolka), all under the watchful eye of the titular brain, a Honeywell 200 computer (voiced by Donald Sutherland, who also has a cameo as a technician).
After being unhappy with Furie on The Ipcress File and then playing it safe with Hamilton for Funeral in Berlin, Saltzman turned to—Ken Russell? That suggestion has been attributed to both Caine and executive producer Andre De Toth, but it wasn’t as far out of left field as it may appear in hindsight. At that point, Russell was primarily known for television, and he only had a single feature film under his belt; his full flamboyance wouldn’t manifest until the following decade. Russell wasn’t happy with the experience, so it proved to be his first and last job as a director-for-hire. Yet he still managed to bring an unmistakable flair to the film, which befitted the outlandish story. Caine’s version of Deighton’s spy had been conceived as the anti-Bond, but this film embraced some of the tropes of that series, with oversized sets and fantasy elements. (Ironically, the simpler sets in the previous two installments had been designed by Bond veteran Ken Adam, but the openly Bond-like sets in this film were created by Syd Cain instead.) Billion Dollar Brain operates as more of a parody of the Bond films than as an alternative to them, and Russell leaned into the satire with relish, from the opening titles designed by Maurice Binder, to the wild ending inspired by Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. The actors followed suit, with Ed Begley making Oscar Homolka’s scenery chewing look positively restrained in comparison.
It was a bit too much for audiences at the time, and Billion Dollar Brain ended up both a critical and commercial failure. Caine asked to be let out of his five-film contract, and Saltzman agreed. That finished the franchise, at least until Caine returned to play the character again in the Nineties. But Billion Dollar Brain isn’t a film that can easily be dismissed—it’s a weird but unique capper to a memorable trilogy.
Cinematographer Billy Williams shot Billion Dollar Brain in 35 mm Panavision using anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. This is the same older master that MGM provided to Kino Lorber for their release of the film. Like Funeral in Berlin, it has light damage such as scratches and speckling, as well as some ringing—the latter of which is especially noticeable when characters are framed against the sky or the snowy backgrounds. There are a few fleeting larger blotches, and there’s also a small digital box that appears over Karl Malden’s arm for a single frame at 15:54. It’s precisely repeatable, so it seems to be an error on the master, rather than a defect on the disc. Otherwise, it’s a solid if dated transfer, with reasonable levels of fine detail, good contrast, and natural colors. Note that this version of the film is still missing the 31 seconds that featured a clip from A Hard Day’s Night playing in the background, as well as Latvian soldiers singing along with the song. That’s been removed from all home video versions due to issues with the rights.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono LCPM, with optional English SDH subtitles. It’s a clean track with clear dialogue, and the tongue-in-cheek score by Richard Rodney Bennett sounds fine.
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO) B/B-/B
Via Vision’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of The Harry Palmer Collection serves as #75, #76, and #77 in their Imprint line. The disc for each film is housed in its own individual amaray case, and those cases are enclosed in a sturdy box with simple but attractive glossy artwork. (For some reason, the pictures of Caine on the box don’t feature Palmer’s trademark glasses, even though the artwork on all the inserts does.) The box is only slightly larger than the amaray cases, so it should fit on any standard-sized shelf with no difficulties. The following extras are included on each disc:
DISC ONE: THE IPCRESS FILE
- Isolated Music and Effects Audio Track
- Audio Commentary by Sidney J. Furie and Peter Hunt
- Audio Commentary by Troy Howarth and Daniel Kremer
- Michael Caine Is Harry Palmer – Interview with Michael Caine (SD – 19:59)
- The Design File – Interview with Production Designer Ken Adam (SD – 11:00)
- Locations Report with Richard Dacre (HD – 19:03)
- Through the Keyhole – Interview with 2nd Assistant Director Denis Johnson Jr. (HD – 3:52)
- Counting the Cash – Interview with Assistant Production Accountant Maurice Landsberger (HD – 7:20)
- Textless Material (HD – 3:33)
- US Radio Spots (HD – 4 in all – 2:45)
- Theatrical Trailer #1 (HD – 3:06)
- Theatrical Trailer #2 (SD – 1:08)
- Production Photo Gallery (HD – 47 in all – 2:24)
- Behind the Scenes Photo Gallery (HD – 58 in all – 2:57)
- Portrait Photo Gallery (HD – 25 in all – 1:18)
- Promotional Photo Gallery (HD – 58 in all – 2:57)
The vintage commentary with Furie and Hunt was originally recorded for the 1998 Roan Group LaserDisc and DVD release. Furie wastes no time by opening up with the story about his conflict with Saltzman, though he does give the producer credit for getting the film made at all, since the financing nearly fell apart at the last minute. Furie explains that he shot the film that way because he never liked the script and felt that he needed to do something to spice it up. They also shot in sequence since the script was being rewritten daily. It’s a relaxed but fascinating track with plenty of great stories from the pair—the kind of honest conversation that doesn’t always happen in commentaries these days. (Most surprising moment: Furie admitting that he didn’t know that Hunt directed On Her Majesty’s Secret Service!)
The commentary with film historians Howarth and Kremer was recorded for the 2020 Kino Lorber Blu-ray release of The Ipcress File. Kremer is the author of Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films, and also directed a documentary about the filmmaker, Sidney J. Furie: Fire Up the Carousel!, which is being released in 2022. Howarth, of course, has written frequently about European cult cinema. Both of them know their stuff when it comes to this film, and while Kremer tends to dominate, Howarth still has plenty to contribute. They cover abundant details about the production, including its history, as well as technical and biographical information. They also examine it thematically, in contrast to the Bond series. Needless to say, they spend plenty of time on Furie himself, providing many details about behind-the-scenes conflicts, noting how it was Hunt who intervened to help the director keep his job. The whole track provides a nice complement to the one from Furie and Hunt.
Michael Caine Is Harry Palmer is a lively interview with the actor where he talks about how he became involved with the series, how he helped create the name for the character, his own experiences with Saltzman and Furie, and many stories about the production—for example, Caine says that it was Hunt showing a rough cut of the film to Lewis Gilbert which got him the lead role in Alfie. The Design File is an interview with the late Ken Adam where he discusses his approach to designing the sets for the film. Locations Report is a modern-day tour of the shooting locations for the film led by Richard Dacre. He gives an overview of the film, and then provides comparisons of how they looked back then and how they look today. Through the Keyhole is an interview with Denis Johnson, Jr. where he gives his own views about Furie’s audacious shooting style for the film. Counting the Cash may be the first extra to feature an interview with an assistant production accountant, but Maurice Landsberger still has stories of his own to tell. He has an appropriate cameo in the film—Furie wasn’t happy with how an actor was counting a suitcase full of money in one scene, so he brought in Landsberger to provide the hands for the closeups.
DISC TWO: FUNERAL IN BERLIN
- Audio Commentary by Rob Mallows
- Fun in Berlin – Interview with Editor John Bloom (HD – 13:54)
- Afternoon Plus – Interview with Len Deighton (Upscaled HD – 25:04)
- Candid Caine (Upscaled HD – 46:14)
- Micheal Caine: Breaking the Mold (Upscaled HD – 57:45)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:58)
- Photo Gallery (HD – 2:39)
Mallows runs the website The Deighton Dossier, and he definitely did his research prior to recording this commentary. He frequently lapses into silence, but the details that he relays are all interesting—right down to identifying the exact model of glasses that Caine wore, which happened to be the same ones sported by Deighton himself. He tends to focus on practical information like that, but he also talks about the nature of the story and how it fits into the political atmosphere of the era, as well as comparing it to The Ipcress File and the Bond films. The track is a little dry, but there’s plenty of good nuggets in it.
Fun in Berlin features John Bloom talking about how he became involved with the project, the way that Hamilton shot the film, the issues that the both of them had with the score by Elfers, and the fact that Hamilton left the project before editing was completed due to a dispute with one of the producers. Afternoon Plus is a vintage television interview with Len Deighton from 1983. He offers a wide variety of opinions about art and culture, as well as some specific thoughts about his novels and the film adaptions. He also talks about his own upbringing, and how that influenced his writing. Candid Caine is 1969 documentary that follows Michael Caine around for a period of time, showing his lifestyle and his work. Since his career was still in its early stages at that point, he spends more time talking about his life and his philosophy, rather than his filmography. Michael Caine: Breaking the Mold, on the other hand, is a 1994 documentary that focuses on his major film roles up to that point, from Zulu through Noises Off. It also includes interviews with friends and colleagues, like Lewis Gilbert, Bob Hoskins, and Roger Moore.
DISC THREE: BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN
- Audio Commentary by Vic Pratt and Will Fowler
- Interview with Rob Mallows of The Deighton Files (HD – 12:09)
- Photographing Spies – Interview with Cinematographer Billy Williams (HD – 13:25)
- Billion Dollar Frame – Interview with Associate Editor Willy Kemplen (HD – 19:45)
- This Week – Excerpt of Michael Caine Discussing the British Film Industry (Upscaled HD – 5:40)
- Theatrical Trailer (Upscaled HD – 2:43)
- Theatrical Trailer (Without Narration) (Upscaled HD – 2:46)
- Theatrical Trailer (Textless Version) (Upscaled HD – 5:28)
- Photo Gallery (HD – 3:43)
Film historians Pratt and Fowler are the authors of The Bodies Beneath: The Flipside of British Film & Television, which examines British history through the lens of popular culture. Appropriately enough, they examine Billion Dollar Brain from a pop art standpoint, from the Binder title sequence to the comic book sensibility throughout the rest of the film. They speculate about whether Ken Russell was reining himself in for this film, or if he simply hadn’t developed his later style yet. The pair spend as much time analyzing the film as they do providing information about it, so it’s an interesting listen.
Rob Mallows gives a brief overview of the Deighton books and the film adaptations, with an emphasis on the differences between them and the Bond series. Photographing Spies features Billy Williams explaining how he became involved with the production after Otto Heller was unable to return for health reasons. He also discusses the frigid shooting conditions, Francoise Dorleac’s tragic death shortly before the release of the film, and the challenges of matching the look of the location footage to the work done in the studio. Billion Dollar Frame has Willy Kemplen talking about working with editor Alan Osbiston, Ken Russell’s reputation for being difficult to deal with, and how the reality was quite different. Kemplen finished the film after Osbiston left the project early, but describes the production as a happy one (though he describes Andre De Toth as Saltzman’s “spy” on the set). This Week is a clip from a 1969 episode of the long-running British television series where Michael Caine talks about how the British film industry had become reliant on American funds.
The Harry Palmer Collection is a rather remarkable set. It’s a rare instance where the rights to each film in a series is held by a different company: ITV for The Ipcress File, Paramount for Funeral in Berlin, and MGM for Billion Dollar Brain. So Via Vision pulled off a pretty impressive feat putting all of them together for one box. While all of the films could certainly use fresh scans from better elements, the old transfers are still adequate, and there’s an abundance of quality extras in the package. Considering how unlikely it is that something like this will ever happen again, fans of the series should snap it up quickly.
- Stephen Bjork
(You can follow Stephen on Facebook at this link)