Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

Comedy, Thriller
Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Oskar Homolka
A former British spy stumbles into in a plot to overthrow Communism with the help of a supercomputer. But who is working for whom?
  • 20 Dec 1967 Released:
  • 07 Oct 2014 DVD Release:
  • N/A Box office:
  • Len Deighton (novel), John McGrath (screenplay) Writer:
  • Ken Russell Director:
  • N/A Website:

All subtitles:

Trailer:

Enjoyably witty spy movie with rare restraint from Russell in the director's chair5/10

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'!
Imaginative and unfairly maligned sixties classic5/10

I'm baffled by the dislike afforded this enjoyable sixties romp. The charge that it is less realistic than the previous films is groundless because the others weren't the real world either. The first featured some daft business 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 photographs. 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.
Russians Good, Americans Bad5/10
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
Not great, but with some points of interest.5/10

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.
Weird - (if you are Finnish you must see this film)5/10
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 very now).

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.