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The Ipcress File


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#1 Tim Partridge

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Posted 07 May 2008 - 12:24 PM

This was on TV the other night, I hadn't seen it for what must have been over ten years. I had fond memories of the film having an exciting, experimental approach to the cinematography, authored in my opinion very much by DP Otto Heller (hired to ape the look of his own work on Michael Powell's PEEPING TOM). Lots of funky camera angles mixed with verite operating, expressionist lighting but an overall gritty, textured aesthetic. All real locations, no process work and no (detectable) sound stage filming.

It was great to see that everything I remembered so fondly about IPCRESS had withstood the test of time. Excluding two unfortunate factors:

1) Maybe it's just a more informed eye now, but Techniscope outside of Leone Westerns is very unpleasant to watch. Yes, for about two seconds there is the novelty gimmick of everything being in focus in a wide screen format. Past this however, it's just nauseatingly grainy. Those tiny two perf images might adopt a hyperstylised look when saturated in harsh Southern European daylight (and artificially lit Western themed interiors), but for asbestos filled warehouses in drissely mid 60s London, forget it.

Granted, the version I saw was 16:9 and not representative of a fresh three strip dye transfered print (as was the case for Techniscope films, and this article http://www.dvdempire...?...=2&anchor=1 claims they have simulated the look digitally for the DVD). However, the TV print I saw wasn't terrible, and I hate to say it but the image quality was like bleeding, third generation Hi 8, projected at low resolution onto a jiggled tray of cous cous. Was it really worth it for the spherical lenses doing fake 2.35:1 depth?

Now rent BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN shot anamorphic and sigh at how depressingly superior the image clarity of that sequel is compared to IPCRESS.

2) It was very apparent this time round that, despite the brilliance of Mr. Heller's cinematography, THE IPCRESS FILE is a pretty bland spy movie dressed up with gratutious camera angles. Over half of the gimmick camera angles are not in any way sophisticated (many are just "dutch" slanted low angles for the sake of it), though some good mise en scene arises from the sillyness (the red lampshade shot for example). There seems to also be a direct link to Otto Heller's previous work on PEEPING TOM too, with the POV shots of the myopic agent Harry Palmer (played by Michael Caine). Photographically speaking these are easily the most effective scenes in the fim as well as those in which Palmer meets his superior in the dimly lit second floor room. The lighting is really low key and expressionistic, heightened and theatrical, yet the overall aesthetic is overwhelmingly gritty and realistic. Phil Meheux payed homage to these scenes for his black and white opening to CASINO ROYALE (though I am sure he would agree that the Bond attempt doesn't come close). Otto Heller has always been one of the great past BSC innovators never afraid to think out of the box.

Anyway, there's that old rule that says the best production values in the world will never make a bad film into a good film. Well, I don't think one can argue that the production values of IPCRESS FILE made a pretty mediocre movie into an above average experience. It's not just Otto Heller's contribitions- John Barry did the music, Peter Hunt was the editor, Ken Adam the designer (Peter Murton his art director, no less)- this was the cream of the UK filmmaking crop in the mid 1960s!

As an aside, HOW does Sidney J Furie manage it??? A director with LITERALLY no trademarks. I made the assumption above about Otto Heller "authoring" the photographic look of IPCRESS FILE (based on the obvious). Well in fairness, Furie hooked up with Russell Metty and shot funky Techniscope for The Apaloosa straight after IPCRESS. So, what was all that about??? I think it must be down to coincidence. No way could an author of some of the most effective and memorable Techniscope imagery also be responsible for what is easily THE most unimaginative and ineffective use of the anamorphic format (SUPERMAN IV- ironically the DP was a highly regarded camera operator yet the movie looks totally uncomposed)! I would love to hear some informed opinions on what Mr. Furie does actually contribute when making a film, especially on the visual front. I find it hard to give Furie any credit on that front when all of the cinematography on his movies scream the sole signatures of the DPs credited on them.

Anyway, back to back with PEEPING TOM, this would make enlightening viewing for visual stylists the world over! :)
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#2 John Holland

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Posted 07 May 2008 - 01:45 PM

Because i am old i did see this at the cinema when it was first released , its one of my favorite films i saw a Technicolor dye transfer print it was grainy it was very low key lighting and lots of available light shooting which would have been 50 asa then , it was produced by Harry Saltsman ? one of the Bond producers and was an antidote to the glossy Bond image and one of only about 6 films that Caine has made that he was good in . Love it.
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#3 Tim Partridge

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Posted 07 May 2008 - 01:57 PM

Your criticism of the Techniscope format is mistakenly based on an obviously inferior presentation of it. (Please explain "fake 2.35:1 depth", and how that would be distinguished from "fake 1.85:1 depth"). Watching some pooly-restored presentation of a 35-year-old movie doesn't exactly qualify your judgment of the format (not to mention its being further blown up to fill a 16:9 screen).

Furthermore, do you have the same bias toward (spherically-shot) Super 35 movies, which happen to constitute the majority of anamorphic movies shot today?

For a more qualified take on Techniscope, you should try to catch a newly-struck print of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly", which is currently shown in theaters on the Cinematechque circuit. (Nothing digital was used in striking the new prints.)

Super 35 should really be your point of reference when judging 2-perf 35mm, as the two formats are very close in frame dimension. I own both Techniscope and super 35 cameras, and I would challenge you to distinguish which footage was shot on which camera, even when they are intercut.


I have seen GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY projected a number of times, along with other Techniscope movies (THUNDERBIRD 6 is probably the most obscure). Like I said before, I found the grain did suit the stylisation on the Leone movies, but it certainly was not a subtle grained experience.

Like I said, I did not get the freshly struck three strip dye transfer experience with my Ipcress viewing, but even on the small screen it was apparent that blown up for a cinema screen it wouldn't be to my tastes. I have seen TV versions of DR TERRORS HOUSE OF HORROR (probably shot on the same cameras as IPCRESS) that don't look anywhere near as grotty as IPCRESS, and as I said before no doubt that's down to the stylisation of the image as oppose to IPCRESS which was fighting for a grittier street cred, at times "guerilla"-ish edge that clashes with Techniscope.

Super 35 isn't to my tastes either, no. Not to say good work hasn't been done with it of course (same with Techniscope as already noted). Still, I haven't seen anything shot super35 that looks comparable to the grainy look of Techniscope.

As for my "fake depth" opinion- we can agree to disagree.
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#4 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 07 May 2008 - 02:01 PM

Because i am old i did see this at the cinema when it was first released , its one of my favorite films i saw a Technicolor dye transfer print it was grainy it was very low key lighting and lots of available light shooting which would have been 50 asa then , it was produced by Harry Saltsman ? one of the Bond producers and was an antidote to the glossy Bond image and one of only about 6 films that Caine has made that he was good in . Love it.


Furie and Harry Saltzman had a difficult relationship, much of it seemingly due to the camera angles. There were also script problems and rewrites during the shoot. After the shooting was finished Saltzman fired Furie (There was almost a parting of the ways during the shoot itself) and composer John Barry was not to meet Furie. However, they had secret meetings, which involved the humming of score and discussions about the edit.

Edited by Brian Drysdale, 07 May 2008 - 02:03 PM.

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#5 Saul Pincus

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Posted 07 May 2008 - 04:04 PM

I would love to hear some informed opinions on what Mr. Furie does actually contribute when making a film, especially on the visual front. I find it hard to give Furie any credit on that front when all of the cinematography on his movies scream the sole signatures of the DPs credited on them.


That's because Sidney gives them tremendous freedom to make that mark, and that freedom is an inherent function of Sidney's style.

I cut and supervised post on six films Sidney directed. He definitely knows what he's shooting, and why. He has very specific visual ideas, but prefers to filter them through his team. A lot of people define directing by some variation of the auteur theory, but there's a school of directing that's more about creating an atmosphere on set.

If you're looking for a trademark, look no further than the snap in-and-out zooms he often uses. That's often him operating.
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#6 Tim Partridge

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Posted 08 May 2008 - 05:01 PM

Saul,

Thankyou very much for the above information.

I must admit that I can't remember a crash zoom of any kind in a Furie movie, but then I haven't seen much of his recent output. I do really admire Mr. Furie for continuing to be so prolific and on such a diverse range of projects in terms of genre and quality. I see he did a movie a few years ago starring Alicia Silverstone, Peter O'Toole and Joan Plowright, followed by those Dolph Lundgren action movies!

As I mentioned before though, it's the extremely varied quality of Mr. Furie's output that makes me ask questions as to his own contributions to a film. I love the "journeyman" mentality of the golden age, I think that unpretentious chain of thought has sadly been replaced in Hollywood by self-publicising, pretend "auteurs". With Mr. Furie though his judgement as a director from film to film is so inconsistent it's dizzying. One of the really good films of his is a little known gem called THE BOYS OF COMPANY C. I would have thought that even Kubrick himself had been influenced by this when making FULL METAL JACKET. Quite tense and moving. Lots of great blocking and camera movement appropriate to the story, including gripping steadicam work. Godfrey Godar BSC was the DP (he worked on other Furie movies as a camera operator and also second unit DP) and the photography has aged very well.

Thanks again Saul for the information about Mr. Furie!
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