Billion Dollar Brain (1967)
“Pow . . . Power . . . Brainpower”
Director: Ken Russell
Cast: Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley
Synopsis: A former British spy stumbles into in a plot to overthrow Communism with the help of a supercomputer. But who is working for whom?
While Harry Palmer and films like Billion Dollar Brain were not quite the antithesis of those slick Bond extravaganzas that took the movie industry by storm in the early 1960s – the plot of this movie, for example, could quite easily be adapted into an 007 pic – they did provide a refreshingly alternative approach. In the case of Billion Dollar Brain, the franchise’s individuality is enhanced by the fact that none other than that cherubic enfant terrible Ken Russell is in the director’s chair. His unique approach enlivens Len Deighton’s spy story here, leaving us to wonder what kind of animal a Russell-directed 007 movie would have been.
The laconic Michael Caine returns to play Harry Palmer for the third time in what is arguably the best of the lot. Having become a private detective following his retirement from the espionage industry, Palmer finds himself pulled back into the deadly world of espionage when he receives £200 and a message telling him to collect a parcel from an airport terminal locker. There he receives further instructions to deliver the parcel – a thermos flask, which, he’s assured, is alive – to Helsinki. It turns out that the flask contains eggs which contain deadly viruses, and that his mysterious employer is Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an old acquaintance with dubious scruples. Leo, however, is only the stooge of a megalomaniac oil billionaire called Midwinter (Ed Begley), who is leading a quasi-religious mission to eradicate the world of communists, beginning with an invasion of Latvia.
One imagines that the plot’s device of having a villainous American hero planning to crush ‘innocent’ communists must have met with some negative reaction in the States when the film was released there. President Johnson was already shipping troops out to Vietnam to rid it of the Red scourge, and the country, yet to know substantial defeat in an international conflict, was still riding an anti-communist sentiment that never really went away. Perhaps, it’s for this reason that Midwinter is such an over-the-top off his head bonkers madman. Surely no intelligent, reasoning American could recognise any of their own leaders in such a nutty portrayal?
Although, the plot is unnecessarily convoluted in the first act, it does eventually calm down to provide a fast-moving thriller that, while lacking the gimmickry and multitude of desirable females that Bond enjoys, still manages to entertain as initial intrigue gives way to adventure serial heroics. Midwinter’s ambitions require the construction of a vast underground chamber filled with boffins in white lab coats and huge computers with two reels of tape that rotate back and forth before spewing out rectangular punch cards into a little wire tray. It’s true that all this high-tech stuff looks particularly outdated, but that just lends a nostalgic tone to the picture that is further evoked by crisp location photography of 1960s Helsinki. Malden is engaging as the roguish Leo, and he and the more reserved Caine play well off one another, while Francois Dorleac has little to do but look luscious – which she was very good at. Oscar Homolka, who reprises the role of the Russian Colonel Stok from Funeral in Berlin, is also a hoot.
(Reviewed 3rd May 2012)