Harry Palmer – The Perfect Antithesis To The Jet-Setting Suave James Bond

Abhishek Srivastava - 63 weeks ago

Vladimir Putin was a big fan of the Harry Palmer films when they released in the 60s. The mundane and unglamorous look of Harry Palmer was a deliberate design as the makers of the films wanted to give the spy a distinct look, in contrast with the appearance of James Bond.

Harry Palmer remains one of the most famous fictional secret agent character, created by Len Deighton for his spy novel. The name Harry Palmer carries a history of its own. Len Deighton had written The Ipcress File in first person and thus Harry had no name. It was during the pre-production of the film based on the book, producer Harry Saltzman (also the co-producer of Bond films) asked Michael Caine (who assumed later the persona of Harry Palmer) the dullest name he could think of for secret agent who was bureaucratically all tied up. The first name Michael came up with was Harry. Later for the agent’s surname he suggested the surname of the most boring boy in his school. The idea behind the character of Harry Palmer was to make him a complete antithesis of James Bond. Harry Palmer was just the opposite of James Bond in every sense and the character dealt more with the authentic portrayal of a British spy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin remains a fan of the Harry Palmer series. Michael Caine, in an earlier interview, had revealed that when he was informed Putin used to watch the series along with his comrades in 60s, he was more than flattered. The first three films of the Harry Palmer series released in the 60s while the final two films went straight to television in 90s and are at best forgettable films. The mundane and unglamorous look of Harry Palmer was a deliberate design as the makers of the film wanted to give the spy a distinct look, in contrast with the appearance of James Bond. Harry Palmer was a down to earth, bespectacled alternative to the super spy image of James Bond. Harry Palmer was more designed as the thinking man’s James Bond.

The star of the series, Michael Caine had signed a five picture deal with Harry Saltzman’s company which spread over seven years. Not many know that Christopher Plummer was initially considered to step into the shoes of Harry Palmer but he found the proposition to act in The Sound of Musicfar more rewarding. The character of Harry Palmer appears in six novels penned by Len Deighton and five were made into films. The Film Hashery gives a low down on all Harry Palmer films.


(Michael Caine and Sue Lloyd in The Ipcress File)

The plot of The Ipcress File dealt with the kidnapping of few Western scientists who mysteriously appear few days later. It is believed that director Sidney J Furie on the first day of shoot gathered the cast and lit fire to the script in their presence. His words to those gathered were – “That’s what I think of it.” After the shooting got over, he was fired by the producer. When The Ipcress File was screened at Cannes Film Festival, Harry Saltzman had banned the entry of Sidney J Furie at the venue.

(Michael Caine, Frank Gatliff, and Nigel Green in The Ipcress File)

In the film, Harry Palmer is shown making coffee in the beginning of the film. The executive producer of the film had a made deal with the manufacturer to promote the thing in The Ipcress File – one of the early instances of in-film promotion. As part of a promotional campaign “match the eyes to the stars” contest was unleashed in newspapers as part of The Ipcress File contest. As mentioned by Michael Caine in his autobiography, the film also gave birth to one of the most seductive scenes in the history of movies. There is a scene in the film when Sue Lloyd asks Michael if he always wears his glasses. She is met with ‘I only take them off in bed’ reply.


(Michael Caine and Eva Renzi in a still from Funeral in Berlin)

Funeral in Berlin was directed by Guy Hamilton (also the director of Bond films like Diamonds are Forever, Goldfinger and Live and Let Die) and the core plot revolved around East Berlin. Harry is dispatched to East Berlin to arrange the defection of a Russian Communist agent but things are not what they seem. Guy Hamilton also gave personal touches to the film as he had a background of working for British military intelligence during World War II.

(Michael Caine and Oskar Homolka in Funeral in Berlin)

The novel on which this film is based was originally called My Funeral in Berlin but a typo during the production design stage ensured that the possessive pronoun was lost forever. The entire film has Berlin at its core and the features of the German city has a presence throughout.


(Michael Caine and Karl Malden in Billion Dollar Brain)

Oscar nominee, Ken Russell helmed the third film in the Harry Palmer series. This time the plot involved Harry stumbling upon a conspiracy to overthrow communism aided by a supercomputer. Ken Russell was not interested in directing the film but an earlier contract forced him to. Michael Caine performed all the stunts that were assigned to him and in one instance, almost fell into freezing waters.

(Michael Caine and Françoise Dorléac in a still from Billion Dollar Brain)

When MGM released the film in 2004, 31 seconds of the film were missing. The missing footage from the film is accounted to the licensing rights of the Beatles’ song A Hard Day’s Night which were very costly and thus the entire song had to be removed. Director Ken Russell also had to fight the British Board of Film Censors for the release of his film. A scene involving Michael Caine and Francoise Dorleac was found to be too violent and was chopped heavily.


(Publicity still of Jason Connery, Michael Caine & Gregory Hlady from Bullet to Beijng)

The quality of Harry Palmer films featuring Michael Caine took a beating post Bullet to Beijing. The film was made for TV and Len Deighton was not associated with the film in any capacity. In this film, Harry Palmer is called back into service and then assigned the task of preventing a deadly virus from getting into the hands of North Korea. In his autobiography, Caine has mentioned that shooting for this film was his ‘worst professional experience ever’. So dejected was he with this film that soon after he went into semi-retirement. Bullet to Beijing also had the son of Sean Connery in a pivotal role. During the shooting of the film in St. Petersburg and Moscow the cast of the crew received death threats from Russian gangsters.


(Michael Caine featuring in a still from Midnight in Saint Petersburg)

This too was a TV film and both Bullet in Beijing and Midnight in Saint Petersburg were shot back to back. This film was made for Showtime cable network. Harry, this time, is shown as the owner of an investigative company based out of Russia and is assigned the task of locating a stolen plutonium.


Michael Caine / The Ipcress File / Funeral in Berlin / Billion Dollar Brain / Bullet to Beijing / Midnight in Saint Petersburg / Harry Saltzman / Antithesis

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

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