Michael Caine did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying Harry Palmer for the first time in The Ipcress File.
The 60's was a popular time for spy films and 1965 had several of them three particularly notable ones though that show very different depiction of being a spy. There was of course the very romantic one found in Thunderball, and the extremely cynical and pessimistic depiction found in The Spy Who Came in From The Cold. The Ipcress File is somewhere in between the two. The Ipcress File stresses far less entertaining of spy life like routine surveillance as well as a mundane living, but there is still some humor found here unlike the insistent double crosses and dirty dealings found in The Spy Who Came in From Cold.
Caine portrayal of Palmer is also somewhere in between Sean Connery depiction of James Bond, and Richard Burton's depiction of Alec Leamas as well. Just like Connery's Bond there is an enthusiasm here that he puts into his job vigorously, and there are times where he does seem to enjoy his job. He though is not entirely different than Alex Leamas though either as Palmer still has many tedious duties to deal with lives a relatively humble life, and has a to deal with some of the back room conspiracy although it is not nearly as devious, and therefore does leave Palmer as nearly as much of a embittered man as Burton's Leamas.
Caine is quite good in the role by creating a balanced portrait of this spy. A key feature of Harry Palmer is his sense of humor which also factors into the fact that he tends to be insubordinate as well. Palmer is constantly cracking small jokes to his sometimes quite not amused superiors. Caine takes the right sort of low key approach here that realizes Palmer's sense of humor, but he does not over due it to become an overly comic performance either. Caine has just enough fun with his performance to lighten the mood a bit in the film, but still when more weight is needed for a scene Caine is completely up to the task.
In his performance as Palmer Caine effectively combines the excitement with the tedium that he encounters as a spy. Caine in the moments where Palmer is tracing someone or dealing with something very important he shows a clear conviction that shows Palmer's devotion to his work. Caine is appropriately keen in the role, conveying the intelligence of Palmer. Caine though does not make Harry completely domineering though. Palmer really is not an expert spy, just a good one, and really Caine does well in portraying his frustrations just well as skills. Of course a great deal of the time Palmer is not doing particularly interesting work, and Caine is good in showing that really Palmer uses his humor just to avoid boredom.
Caine stays consistent with his portrayal for most of the film until the very end when Palmer is captured by the enemy and put under mental torture. Naturally Caine loses that charm and poise he had earlier on as he suffers through the physical and psychological strain put upon him in captivity. Caine is strong here as well showing the extreme pain Palmer goes through in trying to resist the programming his captors are trying to embed in him. Although it is relatively fast in the film in showing the process Palmer undergoes, Caine is brings the horror of it to life. Caine is good here because although he shows a strong resolve in Palmer, he also makes it true that Palmer after all is only human.
This is a very good performance by Michael Caine and it is no surprise that this role helped him secure himself as a leading man. This is original and interesting depiction of this spy who is never derivative despite all of spies at the time. Caine uses his unique screen presence and on screen marvelously here to make Harry Palmer a down to earth, and very likable hero. He makes Palmer the relatively average spy who it is far likely we would be, than say James Bond who we would like to be. Although I would say this is not the greatest spy performance of the year, that still goes to Burton, it is an excellent one nevertheless.