Jun 15, 2009

Movie Review: Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

Movie Review: Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

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.

I love all three original Harry Palmer movies, but Billion Dollar Brain is my favorite. In fact, it’s one of my favorite spy movies ever. (Hence the banner above.) Sometimes purists make accusations that this movie brought Palmer, originally envisioned as the anti-Bond in a film series produced by Bond producer Harry Saltzman, too far into 007 territory. This simply isn’t the case. It’s true that Billion Dollar Brain has a bit more action and a much broader scope than its predecessors, The Ipcress File and Funeral In Berlin, but Palmer is still very much his own animal. The character (named in the films but unnamed in Len Deighton’s novels on which they’re based) remains steadfastly cynical about his work and in a way that the Bond of the movies never was, and defiantly insubordinate in the face of his snobby, hopelessly bureaucratic spymasters, men he knows place no value on his life. Yes, the character remains unchanged, but the film itself is decidedly different than those that went before it, thanks largely to director Ken Russell. I can only imagine that its detractors would have preferred another dose of the exact same thing, a rehash of what went on before. I would posit that the trilogy’s excellence lies in the fact that it never resorts to that. Each film has a distinctly unique feel, and the cycle never repeats itself. Granted, that’s an easier feat to accomplish in just three films than twenty-two, but it’s impressive nonetheless. And by the end of the Sixties, the same thing couldn’t be said for the Bond films. (Don’t get me wrong; I love the repetitious elements of 007, but they wouldn’t have been appropriate for Palmer.) James Bond movies (by this point) ended with a large-scale, explosion-filled battle every time. For Harry Palmer, that was unique to this movie and a change from what went before. Therefore, it was not Bond-like, and entirely appropriate to the Caine series.

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.
Equally disorienting is Harry’s rendezvous with his Helsinki contact. The computer has instructed him that the password will be "Now is the winter of our discontent." We see Harry waiting in a beautiful, almost surreal snow-covered landscape, then flash to an abrupt closeup of Françoise Dorléac’s equally beautiful face as she utters the phrase. Her sensual delivery is the antithesis of the mechanical recitation we’ve heard from the computer, but both seem equally strange–off–for the Bard’s famous line. As soon as the line is delivered, we cut back from the closeup to the wide shot. What the hell just happened? Is it a dream? No, it isn’t, but the effect of Russell’s shrewd, almost experimental editing is that we’re as disoriented as Harry. He’s been plunged into an alien world at the bidding of a disembodied machine voice, and has no idea what’s going to happen next or who to trust. Neither do we. Russell’s discombobulating direction literalizes the themes of betrayal and dislocation in the totally solid but rather conventional script. Its one of the most interesting interpretations of the world of espionage I’ve ever seen on film. The first two Palmer movies had similarly byzantine plots and double-crosses, but we were outside observers. Now we’re as baffled as Harry is at every turn.

Russell maintains his vision of Finland as a weird, alien landscape, inside and out. Not only is Helsinki a terrific spy setting, but its so different from other European locations that it suits the director’s purposes perfectly. The outside is full of strange sculptures, unique architecture and interesting shapes, all blanketed in white snow. The interiors are equally bizarre, whether they’re steam rooms that hiss out warm air as you open the door or residences paneled in life-size artwork of nude women. Russell uses the artwork of his locations to punctuate the story he’s telling with great effect. Whether it’s the juxtaposition of beautiful, two-dimensional nudes cut in with quick shots of a grotesque, brutally murdered body, or the sudden appearance of the painted Finnish deity Väinämöinen serving as a stern reminder that men, in the world of espionage, are but pawns of larger, unfathomable entities, the ever-present wall art plays a crucial role in Russell’s storytelling.

Camera angles are important, too, as evidenced on Harry’s snowmobile ride to meet his next contact. Handheld shots and jarring angles collude with Richard Rodney Bennett’s remarkable, haunting score to further disorient Harry–and us. The first time I ever saw Billion Dollar Brain was on a terribly panned and scanned VHS, and it looked like a sloppy student film where the director had no idea where to place the camera. What a disservice that cropping did to Russell’s compositions! Years later, I was able to see the movie in its proper aspect ratio on the bigscreen (and eventually on DVD), and I was astounded at how different my reaction was. All of Russell’s angles and movements are meticulous, designed to evoke a very specific reaction in the viewer. In widescreen, it works brilliantly. In pan-and-scan, not at all. I actually had a similar experience with the first Harry Palmer movie, The Ipcress File, as well. Both films are masterpieces of widescreen composition that must be seen that way in order to be properly appreciated.

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.)

As he careens along, Harry is resigned to his fate, but remains as flippant, cynical and insubordinate as ever. It’s a lot of fun to witness the horrible way that Ross treats him and that he treats Ross right back. Despite the gruffness on the surface, M harbors a paternal (or maternal, as the case may be) care for 007. Ross and Palmer, however, outright hate each other, and therein lies the fun of their interactions. At the end of the briefing, Ross gets the last jab in when he deposits Harry in the middle of nowhere, in the snow, suggesting that he can walk back from here and explaining that he has a plane to catch. Harry is very literally "in the cold," in one of many long shots of isolated figures on desolate white landscapes.

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.
The orders of the brain take Harry first across the border into Latvia, and then to Texas. In Latvia he encounters strange sights like Soviet soldiers on horseback charging through the woods in the light of a flare and peasants packed into a small house watching listening to the Beatles (the shots with Beatles music have unfortunately been cut from all DVD editions due to copyright issues, but can be watched on the Harry Palmer Movie Site) and eccentric characters. There’s the boisterous Col. Stok (Oscar Homolka, returning from Funeral In Berlin, jovial but still untrustworthy) and the nefarious Dr. Eiwort (From Russia With Love’s Vladek Shleybal, as slimy as ever). But nothing in Russia can prepare Harry for the even stranger sights and more eccentric characters he’ll encounter in Texas.

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.

Leo is part of an anti-Communist group called the Crusade For Freedom Organization, run from America by a mad Texan general named Midwinter. Everyone is clad in cowboy duds and dances crazy line dances in a seemingly constant celebration on Midwinter’s ranch that falls somewhere between a ho-down and a Nazi rally. (The Nazi symbolism is unmistakable.) It would all play as wildly exaggerated if it were even possible to exaggerate Texas. But it’s not, and Ed Begley’s amazing, over-the-top performance (he could have just stepped out of Dr. Strangelove) is just the right degree of over-the-top for a fanatical Texan. The actor chews into long, entertaining monologues as he shares with Harry his deeply held personal convictions and burning hatred for Communism. Midwinter plans to invade Latvia with a vast private army with the ultimate goal of liberating the country from the Soviets. He believes, thanks to Leo, that there is a network of agents comprising a Latvian underground who will help in this operation. Harry’s not so sure. Is there such a network, or has Leo simply been pocketing all the cash Midwinter’s supplied for all of these supposed assets?

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.

This is a spy movie that takes its audience on a ride along with the hero, and it’s a ride well worth taking. Watching Billion Dollar Brain is an exhilarating, incredible experience, and credit for that experience must go not only to Russell and Caine, but also Bennett, cinematographer Billy Williams, editor Alan Osbiston and sound editor Ted Mason. All of their crafts converge perfectly to create a truly unique, must-see spy film.

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!


Delmo said...

What are the best versions of the Harry Palmer films on dvd-availability, extras, and whatnot?

Tanner said...

Good question, Delmo. Unfortunately, neither the R1 or R2 DVDs of Billion Dollar Brain offer any extras, and both are cut by that thirty-two seconds or whatever during the Beatles scene. Other than that, though, they're both fine transfers, so I'd just go with your local region. The Ipcress File to get is unquestionably the Network deluxe version in Region 2 which has all sorts of bells and whistles, although the long out-of-print American R1 version from Anchor Bay isn't too shabby on extras itself. Funeral In Berlin is back out of print in the US, so take whatever you can get! I haven't seen the R2 one so I can't comment on it, but it is cheap from Amazon.co.uk. I also can't comment on the Scandenavian versions. Definitely poke around the Harry Palmer Movie site and I'm sure you can learn more about what's available.

Delmo said...

"both are cut by that thirty-two seconds or whatever during the Beatles scene"

Let me guess-some kind of rights issue?

Tanner said...

Yep. For years, that bit of music kept the movie from being released on DVD at all! I'm glad they finally cut it in order to put it out. I love the scene and it adds nice flavor, but ultimately it's under a minute and in no way crucial to the film. I'd rather have it SLIGHTLY incomplete than not at all!

Delmo said...

These music clearance issues give me a headache. Was it on the vhs release?

Kees said...

Yes, I believe it was on the VHS release (I'll check for you).
BTW Very nice review again, Tanner, I 'll have to link to it, we'll create a link loop!

Rob Mallows said...

Great review - I always think Billion Dollar Brain is visually stunning, particularly the scenes shot in Finland.

The two 'later' Harry Palmer films - Midnight in St Petersburg and Bullet to Beijing (not a patch on BDB) - have recently been released as a box set on DVD, by the way.

Can I also put in a shameless plug here for my website - The Deighton Dossier - which is the most comprehensive Deighton-related site on the interent (and also endorse people to visit the Harry Palmer website too, which is excellent).

Tanner said...

It's nice to hear from my two favorite Deighton-related webmasters! I'm glad you guys enjoyed the review. Yes, of course you may plug your site, Rob. Hopefully people follow the link on the right from the Double O Section on a regular basis as well!

I know that I saw the Beatles scene intact on VHS; I just can't remember if the VHS I watched was an official one or a bootleg. I think it was official though.

Castle Elf said...

Great review. The castle parts were shot in Turku which is in the south west part of Finland. Saw this last night on tv and the "Beatles-scene" with the music was in it. Looked great and got good vibes.

Tanner said...

Thanks for the info, Castle Elf! Man, I'd LOVE to go to Finland some day and visit those locations. Strangely, of all the great locations in all the spy movies I love, the ones that attract me most are the Scandanavian ones. I'd much rather hit up Helsinki than follow James Bond's footsteps in the Bahamas, for instance. Maybe one day I'll get to do my Scandanavian spy tour...

Glad they kept the Beatles in the TV print you saw! What country are you in? I've seen it on US TV before with that scene cut out.

dfordoom said...

A very underrated movie. It manages to be both an authentic Harry Palmer movie and an authentic Ken Russell movie. It makes me wish Ken Russell had made more spy movies!