Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ken Russell's first feature film is the third and last 'classic' Harry Palmer spy epic made in quick succession starting in 1965: The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin were the first two. Harry Palmer is a down-to Earth English civil servant forever at the mercy of his handler Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman). The first show was a fairly serious effort making Palmer "one man alone" against foreign agents with a brainwashing machine, not knowing which of his superiors is a double agent. The sequel found Palmer jockeying with various political factions in Berlin, each more ruthless than the last. This final installment was deemed by most critics a silly and politically overcooked cartoon about blind American super-patriotism. It wasn't all that well received in 1967.
Starving private eye Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is yanked from retirement by Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an old crony now running a spy scam in Finland. Communicating only through a giant computer, Leo is padding his payroll with non-existent agents and fictional foreign contacts while pretending to foment revolution in Latvia for Texas oil billionaire General Midwinter, a man obsessed with overthrowing Communism. Harry's old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) blackmails him into re-joining MI5. As even Leo plans to kill Harry as part of his scheme to get rich from Midwinter's folly, it soon transpires that Palmer's only real friend is his old foe from Berlin, Russian Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). Stok laughs at the idea that Latvia is primed for counterrevolution. And Midwinter is so crazy that he won't listen to the truth about his patriotic folly.
Billion Dollar Brain advances Harry Palmer to a different level of spy stylization; unlike other SuperSpy series these Harry Saltzman pictures each have an individual personality. This time around the mood is a bit lighter. Harry essentially plays straight man to a series of comedians, men either deluding themselves or amused by the pitiful folly of the game. The mercenary Leo Newbigen is so transparent in his greed that he barely tries to disguise his treachery. He and Harry become partners but Harry isn't a bit surprised when his first mission is a setup for murder.
Leo is a programming expert adept at doctoring punch cards to fool Midwinter's 'billion dollar brain machine' into thinking that a vast counterrevolutionary operation is going on in Latvia. It's a very early example of the computer lesson known as GIGO ("Garbage in, garbage out"), and it applies to information agencies (and governments) as well as computers - feed the right lies into a system and one can make any fantasy appear to be truthful. General Midwinter thinks that his millions in seed money are sowing a revolution but Leo is just lining his own pockets. The British Secret Service becomes involved when Midwinter starts shipping eggs with germ-warfare viruses meant to incapacitate the Russian army.
The surprise with Billion Dollar Brain is that it goes 180 degrees counter to the politics in the James Bond series, of which Harry Saltzman was once a partner. England stays on the sidelines, with Harry representing the only sane voice in a world gone mad. A crazy Texan oilman (hmmm..) is suicidally obsessed with changing history and freeing the world from Bolshevism. His Texas empire is depicted as a wild barbecue / Klan rally. Ed Begley plays Midwinter as completely sincere and is therefore almost loveable.
Even more strange, in Billion Dollar Brain's view of the Cold War, the repressive Russians come off as reasonably responsible. Colonel Stok is the only man with the big picture. He knows that Newbigen has recruited a ring of phony revolutionaries and waits patiently to make his move. He also has his own spy in Leo's camp. Interestingly, although Stok plays harshly with the sad-sack Latvian racketeers who are Leo's 'groundswell' of Freedom, the only real treachery comes from the crooked middleman Leo. Unlike the others, his interest is profit. He'll start wars or stop them with lies and bad information, whatever it takes. Billion Dollar Brain is a little odd politically in that the repressive USSR was no beacon of good management or government, and needed to be dismantled. But the film gets the source of war 100% correct. I wonder how out-of-control our present military involvements would be if they didn't create opportunities for war profiteers to earn (steal?) billions of dollars.
Spy movies were winding down in 1967 with 007 becoming a silly self parody and spoofs like Casino Royale making it difficult to take any kind of screen espionage seriously. Billion Dollar Brain lightens Harry Palmer somewhat but never turns him into a clown. Ken Russell directs with a visual stylization befitting the script's satirical touch. This and his Women in Love are generally free of the visual excess that makes so many of his later pictures look like music videos.
Of particular note are Richard Rodney Bennett's interesting and romantic score and Billy Williams' lush cinematography that makes femme fatale Francoise Dorleac look so stunning against white snow and dark furs. Dorleac was Catherine Deneuve's sister and sadly died in a car accident soon after this picture and The Young Girls of Rochefort were made; she was excellent in Roman Polanski's black comedy Cul-De-Sac. Genre favorite Vladek Sheybal has a small part as a hostile scientist and a very young Susan George has a cute bit as a Latvian teenager. I'm told that Donald Sutherland flits by somewhere as a computer scientist, but although I've seen Billion Dollar Brain many times I keep forgetting to look for him.
Sony's release (under the MGM label) of Billion Dollar Brain is a handsome enhanced transfer with solid mono tracks that no longer distort in the musical passages. There is a Pan-scan alternate encoding on the flip side. No other extras are included.
The main buzz about Billion Dollar Brain is a deleted scene, or part of a scene that until now has kept the film off home video. Savant guessed this one a while ago ... About halfway through the movie Harry ignores Colonel Stok's warning and visits Leo's Latvian 'revolutionaries' who turn out to be cheap smugglers. On the DVD, Harry enters a doorway at the top of some snowy stairs, enters a room with chickens flying around and then talks to the ringleader of this little den of thieves. What's missing is fifteen seconds, which go like this: a hard cut from the doorway shows a TV set with singing Latvian soldiers, while The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night blares out on the soundtrack. The camera pans and dollies about, revealing that the smugglers are trading Beatles records for hard currency or, in some cases, chickens and rabbits. This goes on until Harry stumbles through the second door and the music stops.
Since A Hard Day's Night was originally a United Artists release, we can see how the song got there in the first place. But as the contract probably didn't call for "all media in perpetuity," the scene can be shown in theaters and on Television but not put on a video or a DVD. It's a cute moment but by no means essential and in Savant's opinion the movie doesn't suffer for its loss.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Billion Dollar Brain rates:
Video: Excellent (with a cut; see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 18, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson