Skip to main content

While James Bond's cinematic stamina, newly re-asserted by the box office boffo Skyfall, qualifies the film franchise as the main pop cultural argument for the endurance of the British Empire, there was a time when 007 had a run for his money.

After the global espionage craze sparked by Dr. No and From Russia With Love, the super-spy business was a crowded marketplace: There were American spy movies, Italian spy movies, Japanese spy movies, French spy movies, and naturally a lot more from the Brits.

But of all the spinoffs, parodies and alternative movie spy-boys Bond generated, currently being showcased in a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective called "Beyond Bond: The Other Secret Agents," nobody does it better than 32-year-old Michael Caine as Harry Palmer in Sidney J. Furie's crackling 1965 adaptation of Len Deighton's The Ipcress File.

Here's the guy you wish had been successful enough to give Bond some real competition, if only because of all the so-called anti-Bonds, Caine's affably cynical, decidedly self-interested Palmer called 007 out on the only issue that, in England anyway, mattered: class.

We're not talking taste in martinis here, either. Had Harry ever met James, he'd have sniffed him out as a posh upper-class git in a flash, and then he'd have hot-wired his Aston Martin and taken off with his "bird."

As directed by the 32-year-old Toronto-born Furie, The Ipcress File is at once a downside brick-and-mortar London travelogue, and a career-defining role for Caine, who'd made his mark as a poncey racist martinet in the previous year's Zulu but would hereafter be cast as the bespectacled Cockney wiseacre who made public school ties curl every time he entered a room.

A bit like John Le Carré, the former Royal Air Force photographer and popular cooking columnist Len Deighton was fascinated by the dreary side of espionage, but his unnamed hero (whom Caine suggested be named Harry after producer Harry Saltzman asked the actor to suggest a boring moniker) was less George Smiley's repressed bureaucrat than a kind of reluctant private eye. He was working for the secret service as a way of avoiding military prison on charges of black marketing, and he was always less wary of his Iron Curtain adversaries than his upper-class tea-and-crumpet superiors.

There would be five Caine-starring Harry Palmer movies in total, but The Ipcress File is the best – not only of the series but of mid-60s British cinema, an admittedly rich period. It concerns Palmer's attempts to find out who's behind a number of disappearing British nuclear scientists, but its real interest is in setting this unlikeliest of spy heroes against his own superiors .

What would Tarantino do?

Word circulated about 15 years ago that Quentin Tarantino was dying to make a Bond movie and, when that didn't pan out, that he was interested in making a Harry Palmer movie. Whether that will ever transpire remains to be seen – but the mere fact that even Tarantino's most whimsical ambitions are widely circulated pop cultural knowledge confirms that the 49 year-old former video clerk has become America's most familiar and quotable brand-name movie director.

Whether you consider it glorious or "inglourious," Tarantino's legacy is available for concentrated reconsideration in a just-released Blu-ray collection (from Alliance) called Tarantino XX. Gathering all of the director's self-made movies from Reservoir Dogs to Inglourious Basterds, and tossing in one (True Romance) this one-man junk-movie recycling machine only wrote, the set will either prove fun for those who dig his brand of high-concept genre mashup, or evidence of his postmodern prankishness.

Me, I'm on-side with the QT, a fan-turned-director whose omnivorous fascination with all movies has probably done more to instil popular fascination and awareness of otherwise ignored or dismissed directors, actors and under-appreciated movie forms than anyone since Martin Scorsese. And if anyone could arrange that hook-up between James Bond and Harry Palmer, it's Tarantino.

The Ipcress File plays at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Nov. 23, 9 p.m.