Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

billion_dollar_brain_us1shDirected by Ken Russell

Written by John McGrath (based on the Len Deighton novel)

Starring Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Guy Doleman, Francois Dorleac

Tagline: Pow . . . Power . . . . Brainpower

Trivia: During the filming of Billion Dollar Brain Karl Malden’s hotel room was broken into and his cash was stolen, but not his Traveler’s Checks. The incident inspired Malden to become a  spokesperson for American Express. 

Billion Dollar Brain, the final film of the Harry Palmer trilogy, ever so gently goes off the rails into self-parody and becomes the very thing the series went against: an over the top James Bond film.

The film begins with Harry being called back into service (against his will) to investigate some strange activity in Finland.  Once again there’s enough double crossing to make your head spin.  There’s rumors of a “super computer” under the control of a madman.   Then the story inexplicably shifts to Texas where an unhinged oil millionaire known as General Midwinter, pprtrayed by Ed Begley (played the racist juror in 12 Angry Men) in a cartoon performance that takes over the movie.  A mad dog anti-communist, Midwinter wants to start a revolution in Latvia to topple the U.S.S.R. Harry and British intelligence, believing Midwinter could start a Third World War, must stop him.

Directed by Ken Russell, who would go on to make some of the most controversial films of the era including The Devils and Tommy, had a unique flare for sensual and outlandish imagery. In Billion Dollar Brain there’s a surreal sequence where a whole army of tanks sinks in ice. Russell’s bombastic visual style keeps the movie humming along well enough. But the story gets so crazy it bears little resemblance to The Ipcress File. Meanwhile Caine is given little to do, reduced to being a sarcastic bystander during the bloated action sequences.

So the Harry Palmer trilogy stands as a curio in the explosion of Cold War spy films that dominated 1960s pop culture.  Plans for a fourth film never materialized, but it’s clear with Billion Dollar Brain the series had played itself out (Caine returned to the role in two made for television films in the 1990s).  A subdued hero can carry a film franchise only so far I suppose. In retrospect I wonder if the character was better suited for a weekly TV series, a format that would allow for more in depth story lines and extra time to develop an original character.

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