Tom Jolliffe on why the iconic spy character Harry Palmer could be perfect material for a reboot…
With Daniel Craig’s final Bond film No Time To Die seeming as distant from release as it’s ever been, talk still bubbles away about who will replace Craig for a character who’s rapidly becoming outdated, and almost too iconic to revolutionise. Whether you’re for or against a black Bond, a female Bond, or a Bond from outer space, and whether you think his attitudes should be in keeping with a woke 2020 world, are up to you, but the reality is, Bond is so ingrained in the consciousness of many film goers, that no continuation is going to be met without some controversy in some corners. If Daniel Craig’s initial appointment was contentious, then 12 years on, in a world that feels markedly different, the next Bond will be walking a tightrope.
Of course cinema could instead opt to push and develop more original material, but that’s not likely to happen either. I’m not historically in favour of unnecessary reboots but one cult character of literary fiction (turned movie protagonist), Harry Palmer, could well be a good option for a modern update. From the mind of Len Deighton, the unnamed spy proved popular in a series of thriller novels and was then immortalised in a series of films, given the name Harry Palmer (and played with aplomb by Michael Caine).
Beginning in 1965 with the classic British thriller, The Ipcress File, it was a Brit alternative to The Manchurian Candidate, with a plot involving mind control, as well as a clear antithesis to James Bond. Sidney J. Furie’s stylish direction, utilising his camera as if it’s a constant voyeur, or hidden from sight of a real spy plot in action, was ahead of its time (and contentious at the time). Caine’s nonchalant, working class hero was a world away from the glamour and gadgets of Bond, even if he had a similar roguish charm with the ladies and playful attitude. The Ipcress File marked a fantastic counterpoint to Bond. The sequels were a mixed bag but still offered plenty of Caine charisma. Funeral in Berlin was directed by Goldfinger director, Guy Hamilton, whilst Billion Dollar Brain was helmed by controversial British director, Ken Russell. It’s an interesting series for sure, and whilst certainly has a level of reverence in the UK, the Palmer series has kind of been forgotten a little in time (particularly outside the UK).
There’s enough lore in the character and the worlds Deighton created that would interest fans of the books and previous movies, and enough pull within the spy genre generally, to make an updated adaptation popular. A realistic approach would be required of course, and a series more focused on some of the drudgery of espionage, and minus the need for gadgets and huge set pieces, lends itself well to a lower budget. As such a studio could conceive a film with the right casting that could be popular. In essence it probably needs a British company to do just that, in a similar manner to how Blumhouse has approached its modern updates (including The Invisible Man). A sensible budget, and a more focused approach on making a good film would work. Bond as an example, now has to contend with the fact it’s in a worldwide, tent-pole market and all the hurdles that entails, not least creating memorable set pieces that will outdo the last. Someone like Tomas Alfredson, whose Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy was a great update to classic material, would be ideally suited to updating something like Palmer, or indeed a number of British directors too (Steve McQueen could add an interesting grounding to it, whilst retaining the requisite espionage spectacle, and perhaps Ben Wheatley too).
As a movie project it has potential for certain, but similarly, a mini-series, or continuing series might also be a great platform to resurrect Palmer. An overriding arc, interspersed with different missions, that could be direct adaptations from the novels, or include some original ideas too. TV has become a great platform, where quality is more consistently high these days than on the movie screens. Just who might play Palmer is another matter. Tom Hardy would make a good Palmer, or Charlie Hunnam. Going a bit younger, Jamie Bell perhaps, or someone who really impressed me in the recent Netflix restart, Top Boy, was Kane Robinson who’d bring something very interesting to a spy role. The beauty of Palmer as a character is that you don’t need to scour the industry for someone who can tick off all the movie star leading man checklists (whilst still being somewhat below the radar). It’s a tough role to cast for sure. For Palmer though you can focus on character actors, or cast who will bring something more distinctly them to a role not so historically defined, whereas Bond requires (to an extent) the actor to bend to the character more.
Additionally within the espionage genre, you have the option to set it in a distinct time and place. You could take Palmer back to the 60’s as an option, or indeed update him to a modern world replete with all the advancements we currently have at our disposal as well as the intelligence departments. Indeed, Palmer, can potentially be adverse to those modernity’s in favour of his more unorthodox techniques. Personally, I think Palmer could work very well in the modern age. Whether we’ll see anyone approach Deighton’s classic material, who knows, but potentially, there’s an audience in wait for a good old fashioned spy thriller and a character that’s ready made to be magnetic. What do you think about rebooting Harry Palmer and bringing him back on assignment? Let us know on our social channels @flickeringmyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.