Guilty Pleasures: Billion Dollar Brain



The third in moonlighting 007 producer Harry Saltzman’s “anti-Bond” series of cocky cockney Harry palmer films is actually the most Bond like, a wild, quirky international quest, brilliantly and bizarrely directed by enfant terrible, Ken Russell.

Now is the  Midwinter of our discontent

Russell was being given a lifeline by Saltzman and his star Michael Caine, after his poorly received first farce, French Dressing, four years earlier in 1963. They both admired his BBC film on  the composer Claude Debussy for its visual and aural flair. For his part, he hoped that if he turned in a big budget film to their satisfaction, he could go on to do more personal works. As it was, he elevated Billion Dollar Brain into a Quixotic, surreal Alice In Wonderland  caper, with Caine’s Harry Palmer very much lost down the rabbit hole.

The plot concerns an attempted putsch and overthrow of Communist Latvia by a rabid anti-Communist Oil tycoon, the self styled “General” Midwinter (Ed Begley). He intends to build a network of agents which will rise up, supported by his private army which he will lead across the frozen waters from neighbouring Finland. Harry Palmer, now a divorce specialising private detective, is coerced by his old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) back into service. He declines at first, but is soon blackmailed into doing so. Ross is after Midwinter, who he suspects of orchestrating the theft of deadly germs from Porton Down secret research base. An invitation to Harry by old friend  Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), Midwinter’s Finland fixer, sets many wheels in motion. Newbigin has been embezzling Midwinter’s uprising funds with his glamourous lover Anya (Francoise Dorleac). He has been covering his tracks by reprogramming Midwinter’s tactical computer (the Billion Dollar Brain of the title). Palmer is soon pushed and pulled into conflicting allegiances, yet somehow comes out with dignity, healthy skepticism and honour intact.

“This never happened to the other fella!”

Russell captures the disorientating, fast paced action via clever cuts and edits. When the Brain instructs Palmer via telephone to his London office to deliver a package (a thermos with the deadly germs in “eggs”) to Finland, he hails a cab. “Where to Guv?” “Helsinki.” Next cut, we’re there, Harry under dressed in a snow storm. Where Bond would have “Pan-Am-ed” there, as Catching Bullets author Mark O’Connell would say, Russell literally cuts to the chase, and also switches from extreme close-ups to isolated figures in wide-shot, snowy isolation. Palmer is the spy kicked out into the cold. It’s disorienting and disarming, especially when his contact Anya breathily invokes the password to him: “Now is the winter of our discontent.” Francoise Darleac makes a stunning femme fetale, mischievous, beguiling, and politely deadly. She delivers him to Leo, waiting  in an isolated lakeside cabin, via snowmobile, laughing gaily over Richard Rodney Bennett’s magnificent tumbling classical score. It’s like Jules Et Jim meets In Like Flint.

Billion dollar “slay” ride

Bennett’s score is glitzy, jazzy, classy and classical, loads of brass and soaring melodic piano. It also features a strange instrument called the Ondes Martenot, a precursor to the synthesizer. Played from a keyboard, it produces a theremin-like sound, and is used in the Anya theme, a mysterious, haunting allegro to her enigmatic beauty. Dorleac, Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister, died in a car accident aged 25, shortly before the film was released.

Ross provides droll laughs in his encounters with Palmer. We first meet him when Palmer disturbs an intruder with his head in his kitchen cabinet. Ordered to raise his hands, he does so, and turns around – it’s Ross, who lets the cornflakes from the packet he’s holding spill to the floor. “You get all your equipment from Kelloggs?”  When he turns up in Helsinki, he press gangs Palmer back into service with the promise of a raise, all done in the back of a speeding car. (presaging M’s brief to James Bond in a similar speeding car during Tomorrow Never Dies) before abandoning him to make his own way back to town.

Attack of the clones

The Brain at one point orders Palmer, supposedly working for Midwinter, to Latvia to hook up with a local network of hapless rebels, drinking vodka and listening to the outlawed Beatles in a packed cabin. In a nice irony, the Beatles segments are missing from the DVD release, due to copyright issues.

In contrast to the snowy scenes, Palmer’s trip to Midwinter’s Texan Heart Of Daffyness is claustrophobic, uncomfortable – all close up whooping and hollering square (head) dancers in a flame lit, night time hoedown rally. Begley is fantastic as Midwinter, a frothing, goggle eyed, Rand-ian nutjob. “My love is this great company of brave young men, who are proud to make their country strong!”

Fortunately, Palmer’s old sparring partner from Funeral In Berlin, Soviet Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka) is on to the plan, thanks to his double agent Anya. Securing the poison eggs, he has arranged for Midwinter’s army of converted troop carrying tankers and snow buggies to charge across the icy border to their doom through the thinnest ice, rerouted by the reprogrammed Brain. This film is unusual in its sympathies with the traditional cold war bad guys, the Russians.  A Russian flavoured score is used for the attack, interspersed with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7, written during the siege of Leningrad in WWII. Reminiscing about it to Palmer earlier, Stok absently says “They were all about to die. It means a lot to us. We don’t forget those times so easily.”

Billion Dollar Brain is a one of a kind spy caper: perplexing, bold, with exemplary camera work, idiosyncratic editing, superb location filming and a brilliant, baroque score. And of course, James Bond regular Maurice Binder does the cheeky, swinging sixties opening titles, Michael Caine peeking out from behind a naked woman – in stereo!

Now, where’s my form 11 / B?

Richard Rodney Bennett

29/03/36 – 24/12/12

Originally posted 2013-01-03 16:12:33. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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