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Billion Dollar Brain
KL Studio Classics
Savant Blu-ray Review

Billion Dollar Brain
KL Studio Classics
1967 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 111 min. / Street Date October 7, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Michael Caine, Françoise Dorléac, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Oskar Homolka, Guy Doleman, Vladek Sheybal
Cinematography Billy Williams
Production Designer Syd Cain
Art Direction Bert Davey
Film Editor Alan Osbiston
Original Music Richard Rodney Bennett
Written by John McGrath from the novel by Len Deighton
Produced by Andre De Toth, Harry Saltzman
Directed by Ken Russell

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

If you happen to a Harrypalmerphile like myself, here's the answer to what I know will be your first question: Have the fifteen or so deleted seconds been restored, in which Harry Palmer barges into a room where Latvian smugglers are playing a Beatles record? The answer, is, no. A full explanation follows in a footnote.

Billion Dollar Brain is now mostly remembered as Ken Russell's second feature, although the late director's fans are more likely to worship his later less conventional and more kaleidoscopic films. The Harry Saltzman production is the third and last 'classic' Harry Palmer spy epic made in quick succession starting in 1965, all for different studios but each starring hot '60s item Michael Caine. 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 in Berlin with a number of international political factions, each more ruthless than the last. Some critics dismissed this final installment as a silly and politically overcooked cartoon about blind American super-patriotism. Fans of glossy spy stories and the gorgeous Françoise Dorléac love it.

Starving private eye Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) has quit his espionage job but is yanked from retirement by Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an old crony now working in Finland. His boss is the deranged General Midwinter (Ed Begley), a right-wing Texas oil billionaire convinced that it is possible for a small force to 'liberate' Latvia from the Soviets. Communicating only through a giant computer, Leo pads his payroll with non-existent agents and fictional foreign contacts while pretending to foment revolution. Harry's old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) blackmails Harry into re-joining MI5. Leo's treacherous plan is to kill Harry as part of his scheme to get rich from Midwinter's folly, so Palmer realizes that his only 'trustworthy' friend is his old foe from Berlin, Russian Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). Stok laughs at the idea that Latvia is primed and waiting for counterrevolution. And Midwinter is so crazy about overthrowing Communism that he won't listen to the truth about his patriotic folly.

Unlike other SuperSpy series, each of these Harry Saltzman pictures has an individual personality. Billion Dollar Brain is the most visually and politically cartoonish. This time around the mood is a much 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 greedy Leo Newbigen barely tries to hide his own treachery. He and Harry become partners but Harry isn't a bit surprised when his first mission is a setup to be murdered. But the mood isn't grim. The film's lush surface is mostly a series of pleasures -- the beautiful snowy landscapes are cold but hold Technicolor surprises like the gorgeous Anya (Françoise Dorléac), decked out in furs that couldn't be more inviting. As Leo Newbigen's agent-paramour, Anya is of course not to be trusted. She has a mean habit of killing her lovers with a small pin...

The main idea is a computer-age extrapolation of the 'fake spy' idea in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana. Expert programmer Leo has been making a fortune by fooling Midwinter's 'billion dollar brain machine' into thinking that a vast counterrevolutionary operation is underway in Latvia. It's a very early example of the computer lesson known as GIGO ("Garbage In, Garbage Out") that applies to information agencies (and governments) as well as computers -- feed the right lies into the system and one can make any fantasy appear to be truthful. General Midwinter believes that his millions in seed money are sowing a revolution, when Leo is really 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.  2

The surprise with Billion Dollar Brain is that it runs 180° counter to the politics of the James Bond series, of which Harry Saltzman was once a partner. Rather than joining with America against Communism, England stays on the sidelines, with Harry representing the only sane voice in a world gone mad. A crazy Texan oilman is suicidally obsessed with freeing the world from Bolshevism. His Texas empire is depicted as a wild barbecue / Klan rally. Ed Begley plays the maniac Midwinter as completely sincere and is therefore almost loveable.

Even more strange, Billion Dollar Brain's view of the Cold War presents the Soviets as reasonably responsible. Colonel Stok is the only man with the big picture about Newbigen and the ring of phony revolutionaries; he waits patiently to make his move. Stok also has his own spy in Leo's camp. Interestingly, although Russian plays harshly with the sad-sack Latvian racketeers that are the sum total of Leo's 'groundswell' of Freedom, the only real rat is the crooked middleman Leo. Unlike Midwinter, his interest is profit and he doesn't care about war, peace or who gets killed. Billion Dollar Brain is a little odd politically in its rather benign vision of the USSR. But the film gets the political mechanism of war 100% correct -- it creates opportunities for war profiteers to earn (steal?) billions of dollars.

Spy movies were winding down in 1967 with 007 becoming a silly self-parody. Spoofs like Casino Royale made it difficult to take most 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 manic music videos. His climax has a clever organizing principle: it's essentially a modern reworking of the conclusion of Eisenstein's 1938 Alexander Nevsky -- the battle on the ice of Lake Peipus, to be exact!

Of particular note are Richard Rodney Bennett's interesting and romantic score and Billy Williams' lush cinematography, which makes femme fatale Françoise Dorléac look so stunning against white snow and dark furs. Dorleac was Catherine Deneuve's sister; she sadly died in a car accident just as this picture wrapped. She was excellent in Jacques Demy's musical The Young Girls of Rochefort and 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.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Billion Dollar Brain is a good encoding of this attractive superspy satire. The image is rich and mostly dirt-free. The rich mono track gains a bit from the wider range of audio. We fans of course welcome Harry Palmer #3 to Blu-ray, to join a couple of UK region B Blus of The Ipcress File. As Funeral in Berlin is from Paramount, a Blu-ray of it isn't exactly expected soon.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Billion Dollar Brain Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 8, 2014


1. More detail: the main buzz about Billion Dollar Brain on home video is a deleted scene, or part of a scene, that kept the film off home video until 2005. Harry ignores Colonel Stok's warning and visits Leo's Latvian 'revolutionaries', who turn out to be cheap smugglers. At about 44:25 Harry enters a doorway at the top of some snowy stairs. There's a jump cut as he exits a room with chickens flying around; he then talks to the ringleader of this little den of thieves. What's missing on the MGM DVD and this new Blu-ray is fifteen seconds that go like this: a hard cut from the doorway shows a TV set with singing Latvian soldiers, while The Beatles' song 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 license for the music cue probably didn't call for "all media in perpetuity," the scene can be shown in theaters and Television but not put on home video. It's a cute moment but by no means essential. We'd like it back but the movie doesn't suffer greatly for its loss.

2. Billion Dollar Brain is mentioned in writer Cade Metz's fun 2012 wired article about The Most Wonderfully Ridiculous Movie Computers of all Time.

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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