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I'm baffled by the dislike afforded this enjoyable sixties romp. The
that it is less realistic than the previous films is groundless because
others weren't the real world either. The first featured some daft
with a psychedelic torture chamber and the second some far fetched romps
around the Berlin wall. Of course, the events in 'Brain' are no less
credible. The kremlin wouldn't allow a top Colonel to be chums with a
British spy, let alone allow him to wander around Latvia taking
The real purpose is to open the plot and make it more colourful, and also
the opportunity to satirise entrenched positions and the madness of
humanity. Recent events in Russia, especially under Yeltsin, prove that
truth is definitely stranger than fiction. The score is terrific and the
breath-neck direction may be enough to make it accessible to young,
contemporary film fans.
The cast is superb. Guy Doleman is brilliant again as the supercilious Colonel Ross. The scene where he spills the cereals and refuses to move his feet while Palmer sweeps them up is priceless. The Russian spy Anya gives a hilarious speech of ennui about her father on the boat with Palmer and Oskar Homolka as Colonel Stock gives a short, classic lament on the ice flow written by John McGrath who does a great job here, especially in his cutting swipes at blinkered thinking. "The air in Texas is pure. That's why I haven't set foot outside of Texas in twenty five years" yells the batty General Midwinter. But the most chilling and truthful exchange occurs between Palmer and amoral spy Leo Newbigen. "When he gets between five miles of the Latvian border, every alarm in the world is gonna blow and four minutes later no one is going to be around." - "You want your money, don't you?"
Ken Russell began his career doing documentaries about classical composers and his experience pays off here in his use of sound with image. Anyone bored with current fair and hasn't seen this trilogy could do worse in giving them a go. This one was the best, in my opinion.
Definitely an odd film, it is best to take it as a parody of the
spy-film genre: as such it is enjoyable. Michael Caine is mostly sort
of half bemused and half confused as the hapless Harry Palmer whose job
is drawing him deeper into insanity and mayhem. And implausibility. The
culminating scene is, well, pure symphony of the best (read:trash)
special effects of the day. The plot is full of twists and
double-crosses, and includes a Texan bent on taking over the world (how
If you are Finnish, or have visited Finland, the experience is either heightened or or lowered: Billion Dollar Brain is one of the films where Finland stands as a location-double for the unaccessible Soviet Union. It is hard to concentrate on the plot, when first Helsinki is playing Helsinki, then Porvoo is in Russia, and Riga is again in Helsinki. The border is seemingly in Hameenlinna. One ends up wondering how Harry does not realize his train is going merely back and forth. Location-spotting can keep you amused as well, though.
When ex-agent Harry Palmer recieves a mysterious request to deliver a
flask to Finland in return for a fee, Col. Ross forcibly re-employs him with
British Intelligence. Palmer is ordered to proceed to Finland with the flask
(which contains deadly nerve gas), in an attempt to infiltrate the
organisation of Texan oil billionaire Gen. Midwinter, who is believed to be
behind an anti-Soviet plot of some kind.
The third and final of the Harry Palmer films (if you don't count the two woeful straight to cable efforts of the mid-nineties) is generally considered to be the weakest. The strength of both 'The Ipcress File' and 'Funeral In Berlin' was that they were the complete antithesis of the Bond films, portraying the spying game as mundane, shadowy and unglamorous. However, with 'Billion Dollar Brain' maverick director Ken Russell presents the audience with an outlandish plot and large futuristic sets, which seem at odds with the style of its predecessors. The result is that the film appears to be aping Bond, and as such the character of Palmer is less effective.
Despite these shortcomings there are pleasures to be had. Michael Caine once again displays wit and charm as Palmer, Guy Doleman is his usual droll self as Ross and Oskar Homolka makes a very welcome return as Col. Stok. Ed Begley gives his all as the lunatic Midwinter, Karl Malden provides reliable support as an old aquaintence of Palmer, and the tragic Francois Dorleac lends an exotic mystery to her character. The snowbound Finnish locations are beautifully filmed and the production design by Bond man Syd Cain is very stylish.
Ultimately the film is let down by rather wild and undisciplined direction and a cartoonish finale. It's a shame that 'Billion Dollar Brain' strayed so far from the template of the previous films, but its by no means all bad, and can be reasonably entertaining if you're in the right mood.
Some time has passed since Harry Palmer was in the employment of the
British Government and he refuses to go back despite a 'friendly' offer
from his old boss Colonel Ross. However when Harry takes a case on the
basis of a mysterious call he winds up in Helsinki to meet a mysterious
Dr only to meet his old colleague Leo Newbigen who invites him to
join him on his most recent area of work. Harry suspects everything is
not as it seems and investigates further only to find that he has
stumbled into the middle of something big; a finding given greater
validity by Ross kidnapping him and ordering him to infiltrate
Newbigen's group and get to the bottom of a plot to bring down
communism in Russia with the aid of a billion dollar supercomputer.
Having watched Tommy earlier the same day, I thought I was pushing my luck by watching two Ken Russell films in the same day surely I would hate at least one as a result of his excessive 'flair'? But no not only did I enjoy Tommy and this film, but also I was surprised to find that Russell had actually directed this pretty much straight down the line. So great was my surprise that Oliver Reed did not get naked and beat Palmer or that we had no masturbating nuns in the mix that I almost found the plot difficult to follow as I checked the IMDb to check that it was THAT Ken Russell. Almost found it difficult but happily I was able to pull myself together and focus on a plot that almost totally throws off the admin-focused world of Ipcress File and has a plot to kick off a revolution in a manner that could easily have a few car chases added to it to make it into a Bond movie. Despite this expansion, the plot is actually pretty sharp and witty if you remember that the communists are usually the bad guys then the film is making a very obvious point by having a ranting American seeking to destroy communism as the bad guy here! Today that is sharp but it must have been even more pointed in the mid-sixties!
While it gradually becomes too overblown to really be appreciated on the level of a 'serious' film, it is still pretty enjoyable, although it is apparent how Palmer has become more Bond-like with this third film than he was in the first (where he was almost the anti-Bond). It still stands up as a good spy movie but it may annoy people who loved Palmer in the Ipcress File simply because he has changed so very much. I'm not sure who caused this change but Caine seems happy with less of a grey little man and more of an international spy character and plays it well. He still has plenty of snide humour but also does the spy thing with a lot more style than was allowed him in Ipcress. Madden and Homolka both give very good support as Leo and Stok respectively, but the film is stolen at times by a wonderful performance from Ed Begley who manages to be both OTT and spot on at the same time!
Overall this is a good spy that starts in the realm of Ipcress File but ends up trying to be a sort of Bond-lite! This may annoy fans of the original Palmer but I enjoyed it and found it more than held my attention despite not doing anything too gripping. The performances are good and the film is made more enjoyable by the fact that the tables are turned on the normal situation with the communists working with Palmer while the baddie is none other than an American 'patriot' seeking to rid the world of 'the reds'!
Michael Caine's first Harry Palmer film, "The Ipcress File", seems to
have been deliberately designed to present a quite different picture of
life in the British Secret Service to that shown in the James Bond
films. Whereas Bond is a glamorous figure who lives a life of luxury,
travels to exotic locations, drives expensive cars and seduces a
succession of glamorous women, Palmer earns an average wage, lives in a
seedy and down-market flat, shops at his local supermarket, drives a
Ford Zephyr rather than an Aston Martin and never travels outside
London where he is mostly employed in dull, bureaucratic work.
I have never seen the second Palmer film, "Funeral in Berlin", but the third, "Billion Dollar Brain", is much closer to the Bond-type spy movie than is "The Ipcress File". Palmer travels to exotic foreign destinations (Finland and Latvia) and meets (and beds) a beautiful young woman who might just be a double agent. (The girl, Anya, was played by Francoise Dorleac in her last film before her tragic death). The most Bond-like element in the film is the villain, General Midwinter, a Texan oil millionaire who, with his grandiose schemes and his own private army, bears a close resemblance to some of Ian Fleming's characters such as Goldfinger or Stromberg.
When the film begins, Palmer has left MI5 and is working as a freelance private investigator. An apparently routine commission to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki leads to his becoming embroiled with Midwinter, a far-right fanatic who dreams of overthrowing world Communism and has formed his own Crusade for Freedom, controlled by a powerful computer, the "Brain" of the title. (In 1967 it presumably looked very state-of-the-art, but today, with its reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards, it looks ludicrously dated. Strange to think that his billion dollars probably purchased Midwinter something with rather less calculating power than today's £500 laptops). The Brain has calculated (on the basis of false information fed in by a corrupt agent who has been syphoning off Midwinter's funds) that an anti-Soviet uprising is about to occur in Latvia, and Midwinter is resolved to send his private army to intervene.
Some people have seen parallels with George W Bush, but in 1967 there was another Texan in the White House, a man who had led America into a war even bloodier and even less popular than Iraq, and the character of Midwinter was doubtless intended to reflect the view that President Johnson was a dangerous warmonger. As, by implication, were those Americans who had been stupid enough to put him into the White House. (In the 1960s the European Left made little distinction between Republicans and Democrats, who were seen as two sides of the same coin). The hero of the film, apart from Palmer, is the Soviet commander Colonel Stok, desperately trying to prevent Midwinter from setting off World War III. Stok is played by Oskar Homolka who was presumably cast because of his strong resemblance to the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
This world view- Americans are mad and bad, the Soviets are decent and civilised, and anyone who opposes Communism or Russian domination of Eastern Europe must be a Neo-Nazi- was an unusual one to find in a Cold War thriller, but it was one that was fairly common in left-wing circles in Europe during the sixties, even though the Soviets had plenty of self-righteous lunatics of their own, many of them in positions of high authority. Replace the word "Communism" in Midwinter's speeches with "Capitalism" and he begins to sound like Brezhnev's ranting, shoe-banging predecessor Nikita Khrushchev. Any hopes that Brezhnev would prove to be more liberal, however, were to be dashed the year after the film was made when he ordered the Red Army to crush the pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. This sort of pro-Soviet viewpoint looks very outdated today, discredited by the events of the late eighties and early nineties when the peoples of Eastern Europe proved that they did indeed prefer democracy to the Communist system. We can be thankful that at the time of these events the Soviet Union was led by the only real statesman it ever produced, Mikhail Gorbachev. Had the likes of Brezhnev and Stok still been in charge they would have turned half a continent into a bloodbath in an attempt to maintain Soviet power by force of arms.
The film was directed by Ken Russell, not a name normally associated with spy movies. This was, however, only his second feature film (in the sixties he was much better known for his work on television) and he apparently made it reluctantly, being obliged to do so for contractual reasons. It is, however, obvious that he already had ambitions to be more than the director of run-of-the-mill thrillers, because his style already shows the hallmarks of the auteur director he was to become in the following decade- unusual camera angles especially on close-ups, shots using a moving camera, moody, atmospheric photography of the wintry, snow-bound Finnish landscape. The battle on the ice is a direct Eisenstein reference. This makes the film quite attractive visually, and some of the acting is good. Caine is too downbeat- he clearly failed to realise that this style of film called for a different style of acting from "The Ipcress File"- but Karl Malden is good as the cynical, amoral Leo Newbigen, and Ed Begley makes the best Bond villain not actually found in a Bond movie. Nevertheless, the film must lose at least one star for its objectionable politics. 5/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILER ALERT - Not sure if I do give much away, but to be safe, do not
until you have viewed.
Not being a huge Ken Russell fan, it was even more of a surprise to me how much I love this film. It is a quintessentially 60s work, but in a good way. Caine puts in another understated and accomplished turn as Harry Palmer, the anti-Bond of the age (though I love Bond films too).
Two moments I particularly liked were the crazy General and his followers burning pictures and whipping themselves up into a frenzy as the camera swirls dizzily around them and close to the end where the beautiful Russian wants to kiss Palmer as if everything is alright, just because she is so gorgeous, but he spurns her brilliantly.
The books are excellent too, by the way; pity even more Len Deighton works have not been made into films, though in fact a reasonable number have.
Just wanted to add a few foot notes concerning the vastly under rated
plot line of Billion Dollar Brain. The character of Midwinter was
actually based on H. L. Hunt, the Texas oil and ketchup king who ran
his own international spy network (occasionally doing jobs on the side
for the CIA), was insanely anti-Russian, and (according to the death
bed claims of E. Howard Hunt) may have bank rolled the murder of JFK.
When the film was first released, many critics felt that the computer system was a sill sci-fi element. In reality, the US was already involved in the creation of the internet system. Since it was suppose to be top secret, it is a little surprisingly that they didn't utter a peep.
Virtually all American critics at the time took swipes at the film for it's intense anti-American statement. It was the Sixties, the Vietnam was still burning hot, and attacks on stupid war waging Texans seemed pretty cheap and easy. Today, after 7 years of George W. and Dick Cheney, the film almost looks like a news program.
The BBC have been showing this film for years and recently in the
format. Any film that gets the widescreen treatment at the moment is
one held in high regard and BDB is certainly worthy.
The third in the Harry Palmer trio of spy movies, BDB is a "tour do force" of imagery, sound and acting talent. Directed by Ken Russell, this is one of the few examples of art film combined with commercial film production. The cinematography is superb with atmospheric footage shot in Finland (expensive), stunning studio sets including the computer room belong to megalomaniac General Midwinter and an end sequence which is both very graphic and impressive.
This is a fast moving film and is very Kaleidoscopic. I am sure this is a black comedy with all the leading players providing moments of hilarity, none more so than Karl Malden as Leo Newbiggin, as he attempts to con Harry Palmer and his employer out of millions. Michael Caine is equally funny with his quips and femme fatal Francois Dorleac is both stunningly gorgeous and amusingly funny as the temptress with a killer touch. To my complete and utter shock, I learned on this database that Francois Dorleac sadly died in a car crash at Nice in France the same year the film was released in 1967. She was only 25.
This is a film which I never tire of watching due to all of the above and is one of Michael Caine's best in an illustrious career. Watch out for Donald Sutherland playing a bit part as a scientist in the computer room. Blink and you will miss him. 10/10
This is the third of the Harry Palmer spy stories which made Caine a
big name star as sympathetic crook turned int secret agent. Nowadays
Harry forced into retirement works as private eye . Henry encounters
himself privately recruited by the British Secret Agency and he's again
hired by MI6 and his colonel Ross(Guy Doleman, usual in the trilogy).
He must to deliver a thermos flask containing an estrange eggs to
American(Karl Malden) resident in Finland. Harry gets a little help
from a gorgeous woman(Francois Dorleac sister to Catherine Deneuve and
deceased by car crash) but treachery is all around and he starts to
doubt of his partners. Meanwhile a millionaire Texan(an overacting and
blustering Ed Begley) prepares a military uprising in Estonia with the
help of a billion dollar computer.His objective is the overthrowing
communism by means a coup de'Etat in Riga. Meanwhile the Russian
intelligence officer( a wickedly comic Oskar Homolka who appeared in
'Funeral in Berlin' as defector) in charge of Russian espionage tries
Michael Caine as deadpan, flabby anti-hero is phenomenal , he makes a delightful creation as the cockney secret agent, an immensely agreeable role. Packs solid scenes such as the final spectacular icebound highlights, among others . Appears uncredited Donald Sutherland as a scientist at computer. This exciting picture displays a James Bond style , in fact the producer is Harry Saltzman in charge of OO7 production. Emotive musical score including sensible leitmotif by Richard Rodney Barrett. Colorful cinematography reflecting splendidly the freeze outdoors by Billy Williams. The motion picture is well directed by Ken Rusell,who adds his peculiar style in some frames. The best adaptation based upon the bestseller by Len Deighton is ¨Ipcress file(65)¨ by Sidney J Furie, it's followed by ¨Funeral in Berlin¨ (66) by Guy Hamilton and continues the series with inferior renditions for TV, titled ¨Bullet to Beijing(95)¨ and ¨Midnight in Saint Petesburg(97)¨ by George Mihalka.
This film hasn't much to recommend, aside from some nice location
photography in Finland (standing in for Russia). It's too boring and
low key to appeal to those looking for a James Bond type of film, and
too goofy to appeal to those looking for a serious spy film. The goofy
plot would look more at home in a Matt Helm film, except this film
doesn't have the bevy of beauties that are rampant in the Helm movies
to keep the eye's interest. The sole female of note in the cast is
Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve's sister), who unfortunately died
in a car crash not long after shooting most of her scenes. Michael
Caine and Karl Malden clearly had fun playing off each other in their
scenes, it's just too bad that they weren't doing a better movie.
This was Ken Russell's first theatrical film. At the time he was more known as a TV director. Some of his usual trademarks are already present, such as an overabundance of odd characters and experimental editing techniques.
With a title sequence at the beginning by Maurice Binder, who was also behind the vast majority of the James Bond title sequences, they give you reason to believe that you're in for something on the level of James Bond. But alas, it wasn't to be. Billion Dollar Brain was the last of the Harry Palmer franchise at the time. Michael Caine returned to the role however, for two USA Network TV movies which i haven't seen (yet).
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