Spy Films and Brainwashing

Spy Films and Brainwashing


The Ipcress File (1965) Directed by Sidney J. Furie and beautifully shot by Otto Heller, is a spy film with brainwashing as the central theme. Harry Palmer is tasked to recover a highly valued British scientist that has been kidnapped. Otto Heller makes extensive use of framing, filming through the windows of a telephone box, car windows, and doors a reflection in a car mirror alternating with Dutch angles. Bordwell in the context of film style in the 1960s and comparing with French New Wave films by Jean Luc Goddard was prompted to say that, in “[t]he Ipcress File (1965), Sidney J. Furie filmed through telephone booths and hanging lampshades, prompting Michael Caine to call him a member of the “Look, Ma, I’m directing” school”. (Bordwell, 2006: 182). These framing techniques add together to disorientate the spectator. The cinematography seemingly prepares the spectator for the disorientation that comes in the brainwashing scenes.

Brainwashing dutch angle
The Ipcress File wasn’t the first time anyone had used Dutch angles or foregrounded objects in the frame, but it’s the brilliant way Furie does it, marrying technique to atmosphere and storytelling that elevates it to such a degree . . . “ (Spies Like Us: Harry Palmer, the Everyday Hero of ‘The Ipcress File’ • Cinephilia & Beyond, no date)

The kidnapped scientist is recovered but appears to have lost the ability to recall his research, the memories have gone, a victim of the brainwashing techniques known as IPCRESS. Harry following up on a lead calls for a raid on a warehouse where he thinks the scientist may have been held and also the location of the people responsible for the kidnapping. But the warehouse is empty except for a metal frame hanging from the ceiling and a small length of audiotape marked IPCRESS. The audiotape has the words IPCRESS printed on it, it is partially burnt where the people from the warehouse were in a hurry to leave, burning everything that could be used to identify them. The audiotape recovered in the search of the warehouse is investigated and when played back in a continuous loop a recurring sound is heard, not music but a sequence of sounds appearing to be meaningless. Harry after the murder of his associate thinks he is the next target and decides to run. Harry is abducted and incarcerated in a jail seemingly situated somewhere in the Eastern Bloc, presumably behind the Iron Curtain, his only physical contact being the guards wearing Eastern European uniforms and speaking a non-English language and his interrogator speaking English but with an accent. The guards are later identified as being Albanian by one of the main protagonists and the suggestion is that Palmer is now incarcerated in Albania. Palmer after days of solitary confinement, cold and starved is removed from his cell and placed into a cube suspended from a frame above the floor similar to the one found in the empty warehouse.

The cube is formed from a translucent cinema screen type of material onto which moving images, zooming in and out are projected on the sides of the cube. This combined with a disorientating soundtrack, the same sound heard on the IPCRESS audiotapes. The effect of this audio-visual confusion is to imprint false memories, brainwashing. Harry uses pain from repeatedly forcing a nail into the palm of his hand to concentrate his mind, focussing on the pain while deceiving his interrogator, responding as if the brainwashing had been successful. Lopes considers the effect of substituting memories and states, “ . . . [f]ilms directly address the threshold of reality and fiction; a memory from first-hand experience or construction from another mediated memory. (Lopes, Ncc, and Bastos, 2019: 2).

This also ties in with the idea of prosthetic memories. The false prosthetic memories that are imprinted through the brainwashing, essentially these are that Harry has betrayed his country, he is a traitor, that he has killed agents allied to his country. That he has stolen the IPCRESS file and sold it to an enemy of his country. These false memories, that is his prosthetic memories, combined with the trigger phrase words ‘now listen to me’ are used by the real traitor and double agent to control Harry’s actions, by forcing him to attempt to kill his boss. Harry who had resisted the brainwashing using pain as a distraction, shoots the real traitor instead. Other films with a similar trope are the Manchurian Candidate (1962) directed by John Frankenheimer and the remake of the same name Manchurian Candidate (2014) directed by Jonathan Demme.


Anon (2017) Ghost in the Shell (2017) – Quotes – IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1219827/quotes?ref_=tttrv_sa_3 (Accessed: 21 January 2020).
Bordwell, D. (2006) The Way Hollywood Tells It. University of California Press.
Burgoyne, R. (2003) ‘Memory, history and digital imagery in contemporary film’, in Grainge, P. (ed.) Memory and popular film.
‘Enterprise’ Similitude (TV Episode 2003) – IMDb (no date). Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0572236/?ref_=ttep_ep10 (Accessed: 7 March 2021).
Evans, J. (2011) Top 5 Sci-Fi Movies About Cloning. Available at: https://sciencefiction.com/2011/12/08/top-5-sci-fi-movies-about-cloning/ (Accessed: 7 February 2021).
Gateward, F. (2004) Genders OnLine Journal – Presenting innovative theories in art, literature, history, music, TV and film., Genders Online Journal. Available at: https://cdn.atria.nl/ezines/IAV_606661/IAV_606661_2010_51/g40_gateward.html (Accessed: 17 February 2021).
Grainge, P. (2018) ‘Memory and popular film’, in Memory and popular film. doi: 10.1111/j.1537-4726.2004.141_16.x.
Hayward, S. (2018) Cinema Studies The Key Concepts. Fitth, Book. Fitth.
Hiatt, B. (2003) Answers to ‘“Matrix Reloaded”’ burning questions | EW.com. Available at: https://ew.com/article/2003/05/23/answers-matrix-reloaded-burning-questions/ (Accessed: 6 February 2021).
Kilbourn, R. (2019) ‘RE-WRITING ” REALITY “: READING ” THE MATRIX ” Author ( s ): RUSSELL J . A . KILBOURN Source : Revue Canadienne d ’ Études cinématographiques / Canadian Journal of Film Studies , Published by : University of Toronto Press Stable URL : https://www.jstor.or’, 9(2), pp. 43–54.
Landsberg, A. (2004) Prosthetic Memory : The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=107227&site=ehost-live&authtype=ip,shib&user=s1523151.
Landsberg, A. (2016) ‘Prosthetic Memory: Total Recall and Blade Runner’, Body & society. SAGE Publications, 1(3–4), pp. 175–189. doi: 10.1177/1357034×95001003010.
Lopes, M. M., Ncc, I. and Bastos, P. B. (2019) ‘Memory ( Enhancement ) and Cinema : an exploratory creative overview’.
Lury, C. (2013) Prosthetic Culture, Prosthetic Culture. doi: 10.4324/9780203425251.
Opam, K. (2017) Ghost in the Shell review: a solid film built on a broken foundation – The Verge. Available at: https://www.theverge.com/2017/3/29/15114902/ghost-in-the-shell-review-scarlett-johansson (Accessed: 21 January 2020).
Radstone, S. (2010) ‘Cinema and memory’, in Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press, pp. 325–342.
Radstone, S. and Hodgkin, K. (2003) Regimes of memory, Regimes of Memory. doi: 10.4324/9780203391532.
Radstone, Sussanah and Schwarz, B. (2010) ‘Memory’, in Radstone, Susannah and Shwarz, B. (eds), pp. 325–342.
replicant, n. : Oxford English Dictionary (no date). Available at: https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/162877?redirectedFrom=replicant#eid (Accessed: 22 April 2020).
Rife, S. (2014) Oblivion: Trouble with Cinematic Memory – Offscreen, Offscreen. Available at: https://offscreen.com/view/oblivion-cinematic-memory (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
Ripley 8 | Alien Anthology Wiki | Fandom (no date). Available at: https://alienanthology.fandom.com/wiki/Ripley_8 (Accessed: 6 February 2021).
Schwab, G. (1987) ‘Cyborgs. Postmodern Phantasms of Body and Mind’, Discourse, 9, pp. 64–84. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41389089.
Sloat, S. (2017) False Memories in ‘Blade Runner’ Could’ve Been Solved with Science. Available at: https://www.inverse.com/article/37496-blade-runner-2049-false-memories-ryan-gosling (Accessed: 16 March 2020).
Spies Like Us: Harry Palmer, the Everyday Hero of ‘The Ipcress File’ • Cinephilia & Beyond (no date). Available at: https://cinephiliabeyond.org/spies-like-us-harry-palmer-everyday-hero-ipcress-file/ (Accessed: 1 February 2021).
Sprengnether, M. (2012) ‘Freud as memoirist: A reading of “Screen Memories”’, American Imago, 69(2), pp. 215–239. doi: 10.1353/aim.2012.0008.
Treffert, D. (2015) Genetic Memory: How We Know Things We Never Learned – Scientific American Blog Network. Available at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/genetic-memory-how-we-know-things-we-never-learned/ (Accessed: 4 February 2021).
Warner Brothers (2017) Blade Runner 2049 (2017) – IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1856101/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0 (Accessed: 5 May 2020).