Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

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

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

     
 

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Ken Russell's first commercial feature film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), has been very late getting to home video in any form, much less DVD, owing to rights complications. United Artists and its successor companies owned the rights to the movie, and had long since cleared the underlying rights to the Len Deighton novel from which it was adapted, but there was

Overview

Ken Russell's first commercial feature film, Billion Dollar Brain (1967), has been very late getting to home video in any form, much less DVD, owing to rights complications. United Artists and its successor companies owned the rights to the movie, and had long since cleared the underlying rights to the Len Deighton novel from which it was adapted, but there was one scene, involving the use of the Beatles' recording of "A Hard Day's Night" (itself a neat in-joke as UA had produced and distributed the latter movie), that held it up, as they could never come to terms with ATV and the Michael Jackson people over the use of the song in the home-video format (there was also the use of some copyrighted classical music to overcome, but that was easier to thrash out). UA's answer was finally just to cut the scene, losing about two minutes of screen time in one scene (when Michael Caine's Harry Palmer first makes contact with the supposed underground cell in Latvia, he is greeted by this huge man who hugs him, lifts him off the ground, and says, "Hello English -- you have Beatles records?" while "A Hard Day's Night" plays on a turntable in the background and there are pigs and chickens running around all over the place); the movie now jumps from the prior shot to the next shot. As for the DVD, it is stunning to look at and to hear. Billy Williams' cinematography does a lot with London by night circa 1967 and with Helsinki and other Northern European locales, and the movie has been transferred so well that on this basis alone the disc is worth owning. The sound has also been carefully mastered, so that Richard Rodney Bennett's alternately dazzling, haunting, and witty score gets its best presentation since the movie's release. The disc is two-sided, with the letterboxed (2.35:1) Panavision image intact on one side and a pan-and-scan full-screen image (1.33:1) on the other, and the same dozen chapter markers (not really adequate given the complexity of the plot) on each. Both sides open to a simple, easy-to-use menu.

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.

Product Details

Release Date:
10/04/2005
UPC:
0027616122520
Original Release:
1967
Rating:
NR
Source:
Mgm (Video & Dvd)
Region Code:
1
Time:
1:48:00

Special Features

Closed Caption; [None specified]

Related Subjects

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

Scene Index

Disc #1, Side A -- Billion Dollar Brain - Widescreen
1. Chapter 1 [7:11]
2. Chapter 2 [9:45]
3. Chapter 3 [9:04]
4. Chapter 4 [9:25]
5. Chapter 5 [8:15]
6. Chapter 6 [7:39]
7. Chapter 7 [3:24]
8. Chapter 8 [2:13]
9. Chapter 9 [5:36]
10. Chapter 10 [10:08]
11. Chapter 11 [11:50]
12. Chapter 12 [6:30]
Disc #1, Side B -- Billion Dollar Brain- Fullscreen Version
1. Chapter 1 [7:11]
2. Chapter 2 [9:45]
3. Chapter 3 [9:04]
4. Chapter 4 [9:25]
5. Chapter 5 [8:15]
6. Chapter 6 [7:39]
7. Chapter 7 [3:24]
8. Chapter 8 [2:13]
9. Chapter 9 [5:36]
10. Chapter 10 [10:08]
11. Chapter 11 [11:50]
12. Chapter 12 [6:30]

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