Want more men versus machines? How about the greatest man/machine throwdown of all time? To quote the poster (which may or may not have been created by Don King), it’s "Caine vs. Brain!" The titular brain, of course, is a rather pricey supercomputer. And the Caine in question (needless to say) is the inimitable Michael (now Sir), reprising the role that not only made him world-famous, but also launched an incredibly prolific career in spy films.
At the beginning of Billion Dollar Brain, Palmer is attempting to live a civilian life as a private detective. But he simply cannot escape the life into which he’s been forced. It comes to find him this time in the form of his intolerable boss, Ross (Guy Doleman), who breaks into Palmer’s flat. (Of course, he’s filled out all the proper forms authorizing him to do so with impunity.) Harry walks in on him and pulls a gun (for which he assures his former superior he has a license), and Ross calmly puts his hands up, in which he’s holding one of Harry’s boxes of cornflakes. Ross lets the cornflakes spill all over the floor. In a hilarious bit of business, Harry sweeps up the cornflakes around Ross’s feet as the spook attempts to lure him back for another mission. It’s a great scene that sets the proper tone for a Harry Palmer movie.
Palmer rebuffs Ross’s advances for the time being, but Ross isn’t the only one with a job for him. Soon he gets a phone call from a computerized voice demanding, "Is. This. Palmer. Private. Detective. Of. London. Confirm." When he eventually does so, he’s instructed to courier a package (a thermos) from London to Helsinki. A London cabbie asks him where to, and Harry answers, "Helsinki"... and suddenly we’re there. It’s the first of the film’s many unique and abrupt edits, and it works wonderfully. Most spy movies in the Sixties still included the obligatory shots of the airport terminals and the BOAC jets; Russell sets the breakneck pace and disorienting tone of Billion Dollar Brain by cutting directly from the speeding London taxi to moving trams in snowy Finland.
In Helsinki, Harry meets several other crucial characters. His first contact is Anya, played by Dorléac, whose ethereal beauty fits right in with the snowy landscape and haunting music. She’s like a figure from Nordic myth herself. (Dorléac, the sister of Catherine Deneuve, promised to be an extremely interesting talent, but her life was tragically cut short far too young when she was killed in a car accident shortly after filming Billion Dollar Brain.) Anya leads Harry to another contact, who’s revealed amidst the swirling steam of a sauna to be Harry’s old friend, Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden). Newbigen boasts that Harry is "the only real friend" he has in the whole world, but it’s clear from Harry’s reaction that even that status doesn’t earn his trust. Nor should it. In the course of his adventures, I think Harry Palmer is double-crossed at least once by just about everyone he ever meets. That’s certainly the case in this movie, but it doesn’t give anything away to know that. The real question is who is going to triple-cross or quadruple-cross who? Allegiances shift many times over the course of the film, and Harry knows he can’t rely on anyone but himself in order to survive.
Ross also turns up in Helsinki, and pulls Harry back into his service after all. Poor Harry could have had a raise, but instead he ends up blackmailed into serving his country once again. Returned to active duty as an agent of MI5, Harry is sworn in in the backseat of a moving limousine. Ross then proceeds to brief him as the car speeds along the icy streets. It’s another example of how Russell keeps the plot moving along–quite literally–at breakneck speed. (This scene prefigures M’s briefing of Bond in Tomorrow Never Dies nearly three decades later. Since that movie was so action-packed–even for 007–it was necessary to keep even the traditionally calm M and Moneypenny interactions as breakneck as possible, and director Roger Spottiswoode achieved the effect in the same manner as Russell, brilliantly keeping them on the move and setting the formulaic briefing in a speeding limo as opposed to a stationary office.)
Leo takes Harry to "meet the boss," where Harry encounters a surprisingly small computer (for its day) in the middle of a very large, very empty room. It’s a Ken Adamish set, but actually designed by fellow Bond vet Syd Cain. We get more fantastically bizarre edits and disassociated audio: a conversation between Harry and Anya about some games being "more dangerous than others" occurs over violent footage of a hockey game; we then slam cut from one of the hockey confrontations to an extreme close-up of a virus culture in a microscope. The virus is what Harry unknowingly transported to Helsinki to begin with, and he can see it's part of a much larger plot, but can’t get a grasp on what that plot is.
Gone are the wide shots of open scenery that characterized Finland; in Russell’s Texas everything is shot tightly, and all the exteriors take place at night. Sure, this is partly to mask the fact that they actually shot in Finland and clearly not in Texas, but it also creates a marked contrast between the two locations. Texas is claustrophobic, because whatever trap Harry’s gotten himself into, it’s clearly tightening on him there. Most of the Texan scenes take place inside the brain’s command center, where the giant, room-filling supercomputer spits out its orders. These interior locations add to the claustrophobia.
Midwinter’s plan, of course (though calculated by a billion dollar computer system) will have the same effect as Blofeld’s best: it will lead to WWIII. But unlike Blofeld, Midwinter is acting based on fanatical conviction, and truly believes that he is doing the right thing.
The action–and Harry–return to Finland where everything builds up to a truly impressive large scale climax. As I mentioned earlier, no Palmer movie before had ever gotten this big. The previous ones were small, more personal spy stories of traitors and defectors. But Billion Dollar Brain culminates in a whole army clad in white snow camouflage moving across the ice in white snow vehicles and a fleet of white troop transports disguised as tanker trucks. (They even have gun turrets on the top.) Things get very large indeed, and the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It may be a Bondian situation, but it doesn’t play out in a Bondian course. It’s just another unwanted assignment for Harry Palmer–one that’s gotten way, way out of hand.
We never do get that promised throwdown between Caine and the brain (although Malden proves adept at reprogramming it by shuffling around its carefully-ordered programming cards), but everything really comes together in this movie. The impressive locations (particularly the Finnish ones) are inexorably tied in to the unique camera movements, editing, score and sound design. And they’re all spot-on. Richard Rodney Bennet turns in one of his very best scores, ideally complimenting Russell’s cold, alien landscapes. Everything about this Cold War is cold, even the sex. Dorléac plays the icy temptress to the hilt, Malden shines in the most morally complex role, Begley lends the presence necessary to make a small part cast a large shadow and Caine navigates it all in his inimitable, cynical way. He’s not a James Bond. He’s not on top of things. Throughout the whole movie, he’s never on top of the situation. He’s an everyman spy and we share his perplexion as he does his best just to keep his head above water. The story plausibly builds from the small scale of the previous Palmers up to the grandiosity of James Bond via Dr. Strangelove, but Caine keeps things grounded the entire time.
Be sure to check out all the cool video that Kees has put up for this movie on The Harry Palmer Movie Site, including a vintage making-of featurette!