Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Director: Ken Russell

Cast: Ken Russell, Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Françoise Dorléac


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Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), the reluctant secret agent from The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966) -- both (like the source for this movie) based on novels by Len Deighton -- is back again in Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain. Having left Britain's espionage service, Palmer is scraping out a living as a private investigator, but…  See more details below


Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), the reluctant secret agent from The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966) -- both (like the source for this movie) based on novels by Len Deighton -- is back again in Ken Russell's Billion Dollar Brain. Having left Britain's espionage service, Palmer is scraping out a living as a private investigator, but he's still willing to give his old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) the bum's rush out of his office when he comes calling, offering a raise and promotion if he'll return. But Palmer ends up working for Her Majesty's government anyway -- a letter arrives, with a key and money, and telephoned instructions by a mechanical voice connect him up with a carefully sealed parcel (filled with what an x-ray reveals as eggs) that he must transport to Helsinki. No sooner does he get there than he discovers that an old friend, Leo Newbigin (Karl Malden), and his young lover Anya (Françoise Dorléac) are behind the trip, and that the man who was supposed to receive the parcel is dead. The eggs contain dangerous viruses stolen from a secret British laboratory, and England wants them back and wants to know why they were stolen. That assignment immerses Palmer in a deadly game of deception, double-dealing, and triple-crosses on all sides, as he finds that Leo is working for a privately operated intelligence network, set up by a rabidly right-wing Texas oil man, General Midwinter (Ed Begley Sr.). The billion-dollar super-computer of the title, built by Midwinter, runs a network of spies and assassins aimed at the destruction of the Soviet Union. That interests Palmer's old friend, Soviet security chief Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka, in an almost movie-stealing performance), very much, and he, too, wants to know what Palmer knows. And then there's Leo, who has taken millions from Midwinter, supposedly to establish a secret underground in Latvia, waiting for the signal to rise up against the Soviets occupying their country that will spread across the Baltics and beyond and bring down the Soviet government. He's taken the money, but all Harry find when he goes into Latvia is motley bunch of broken-down black marketeers whose orders are to kill him and make it look like the work of the Soviets. And there's Anya, who is sleeping with Leo, trying to seduce Harry, and seems to have an agenda all her own, but in whose interest? If it's all a little confusing, so was the book on which it was based, but there's enough striking visual material, courtesy of cinematographer Billy Williams, and engrossing performances (and a wry sensibility), courtesy of director Ken Russell and screenwriter John McGrath, that the leaps in plot, logic, and setting don't matter that much, and it is great fun.

Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Bruce Eder
The third of the 1960s film adaptations of Len Deighton's espionage novels to star Michael Caine, Billion Dollar Brain was also the most problematic of the three, mostly owing to John McGrath's script and Ken Russell's direction. The two previous movies, The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966), were fairly straightforward spy yarns that, for all of their inventiveness, followed stories and story arcs that could be understood without any real trouble, steeped as they were in the Cold War politics of the day. Billion Dollar Brain has its topical aspect -- the character of General Midwinter (Ed Begley Sr.) is a kind of cinematic burlesque/composite of Texas oil millionaire H.L. Hunt and ex-Major General Edwin Walker (though what Begley brings to the role, especially when he is speechifying about communism, is likely very close to what he did as Matthew Harrison Brady in Inherit the Wind on-stage -- and on that basis alone, the movie is worth seeing). But the story is also very much a deconstruction of Cold War politics as they were understood up to that time, especially among movie audiences. The script, like the book, reverses much of what people thought they knew and understood about relations between the West and the Soviets; in fact, this book was really an early setup for the revelation contained in Deighton's Spy Story, in which negotiations intended to free East Germany from the Soviet bloc are sabotaged by the NATO countries themselves. Russell seems bent on giving the audience as little information and guidance as possible as he takes us on a breathless chase from a seedy section of London to Heathrow Airport on a rocky ride, and then into Helsinki and then to Latvia and to Texas; and we end up nearly as dizzy and confused as Harry Palmer. Although much of the plot finally becomes clear, as Harry realizes that he's been made a sucker by more than one party in this picture, the effect of the pacing and the very thin narrative is cold and off-putting. There is no emotional center to the movie, mostly because Caine's Harry Palmer is so remote a presence here and so far from being the audience's proper intellectual stand-in. In addition, Richard Rodney Bennett's score, although memorable and highly inventive, often only reinforces the emotional coldness of the film. That said, that same emotional distance was an element of Deighton's book, as well, so Russell may have gotten exactly what he and McGrath were looking for in the adaptation. And on the plus side, Billy Williams' cinematography keeps almost everything good -- even great -- to look at (except, oddly enough, Françoise Dorléac, who looks older than her older sister Catherine Deneuve, and almost haggard at times in this movie). There are also some beautifully devised scenes: the rally and bonfire at Midwinter's compound (one suspects that Russell saw the news footage of bonfires of Beatles albums in the Deep South, over John Lennon's Jesus remark, from the year before), the whole section of the movie inside the brain and Midwinter's command center; all of the Helsinki material; and the final section of the film, a parody of the Battle on the Ice from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky, which even utilizes a section of Shostakovich's "Leningrad Symphony" in its opening. And Karl Malden makes for a suitably wily villain, while Begley and Oskar Homolka almost steal the picture in every scene that each of them is in, playing the only characters that are likely to resonate at all with the audience. Ultimately, the movie is a wild ride, and also reflective of its time as a cerebral piece of what might be called "mod" cinema (complete with a Beatles allusion that had to be cut from the home-video version); but it's no Ipcress File, and, given its story and its director's approach, never could be.

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Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Michael Caine Harry Palmer
Karl Malden Leo Newbigin
Françoise Dorléac Anya
Oscar Homolka Col. Stok
Ed Begley Gen. Midwinter
Guy Doleman Col. Ross
Milo Sperber Basil
Mark Elwes Birkinshaw
Alexei Jawdokimov Actor
Donald Sutherland Actor
Paul Tamarin Actor
Susan George Schoolgirl on train
Vladek Sheybal Dr. Eyewort

Technical Credits
Ken Russell Director
Richard Rodney Bennett Score Composer
Sidney Cain Production Designer
Bert Davey Art Director
André De Toth Producer
Len Deighton Screenwriter
Marcus Dods Musical Direction/Supervision
Colin Grimes Art Director
David Harcourt Cinematographer
Willy Kemplen Editor
John McGrath Screenwriter
Eva Monley Production Manager
Alan Osbigton Editor
Benny Royston Makeup
Harry Saltzman Producer
Kit West Special Effects
Billy Williams Cinematographer
Freddie Williamson Makeup

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