The Jason Bourne novels, Ludlum’s flagship line, exhibit the distilled best parts of the spy genre. Bourne has lost his memory, and needs to get it back. He turns one way and another, twisting as events unfold, scarcely able to believe anything he is told, while under constant threat. It seems like a labyrinthine tale, but actually, it’s very straightforward, just as James Bond is very straightforward. There is an immediately necessary course of action at each moment in the narrative, that drives things at least in the short term. There is, furthermore, an apparent over-arching narrative to give these individual incidents shape. It is dramatically satisfying on small and large scales.
In his summary of genre at the end of Night’s Black Agents Ken Hite advises the prospective GM to read as much Robert Ludlum as their constitution allows, because there’s a reason everyone stopped doing it like they were and did it Ludlum’s way. It is a particularly good fit for roleplaying games, because it is kinetic and reactionary with clear goals. The Ipcress File is the other way of spy storytelling.
What distinguishes it principally, I think, is its soft focus. At the start of the film, there is only a theory about enemy action. One senior officer in the intelligence wing of the army sees a pattern in the retirement, deaths and immigration of British scientists. He despatches Harry Palmer to find out about it, and that is generally successful. What strikes me is that the enemy’s plan is that it’s pretty speculative. They’re not targeting some specific research group that’s threatening to them, they’re generally weakening the scientific establishment. It’s a plan that weakens the British in a non-specific way, aiming for their general decline. It is almost optimistic. The only plot in Bond with similar vagueness was in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. It’s non-specificity makes it a subtle game.
In narrative terms, it shifts the emphasis away from doing to observing. The first step is done before the film really starts: spotting the pattern. It plays out very much like a detective novel, a strategy that le Carre used to bridge into pure mystery novels. Yet, where the detective gathers clues and questions suspects in a complex pattern of lies and half-truths that the detective alone can collate into reality. The questions and lies in this case are more like brinksmanship, with both sides waiting for the other to blink and make some definite move, something unequivocal. This storytelling approach can be inert, or it can be like a time bomb whose counter you can’t make out clearly. The difference is usually made in the clarity and immediacy of the stakes, and as alluded to, these are somewhat murky here.
These factors combine to make the film into a mood piece as much as a narrative. It feels indulgent and lethargic; I think it aspires to feel intelligent in comparison to the Bond films that were being made at around the same time, which were far less dumb than those that would follow, but still somewhat whimsical. Its simplicity and its slow pace mean that it doesn’t quite manage it for me. I felt like the investigation was too meandering, and it lacked a palpable sense of menace. I think we can look at the way Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy worked to see how this story concept can be executed with clearer stakes – but then again, TTSS relies almost as much on the strength of the personal relationships of the inner circle, so that it has two sources of drama which work in concert.
The Ipcress File nevertheless represents a functional template for alternatives to the modern kinetic spy movie.