Friday, 3 February 2012

Billion Dollar Brain

Ken Russell's first feature film, unfunny comedy 'French Dressing' (1963), was an unqualified disaster, so he didn't get another big screen opportunity until 1967, when he was asked to direct 'Billion Dollar Brain', the third and last 60s instalment in the Michael Caine Harry Palmer series (the franchise would be briefly and shittily revived in the 1990s).

'Yes, it's Palmer. P-A-R...'
'Billion Dollar Brain' is definitely the runt of the litter when compared to 'The Ipcress File' and 'Funeral In Berlin', but it's a close-ish third and has some quirky and surprising elements that could only have been provided by crazy Ken, even if he was on his very best behaviour.

Midwinter himself, the bastard.

The plot is almost irrelevant, but is driven by self-styled General Midwinter, a crazed Texan oil billionaire who wishes to erradicate communism using a private army and some virus filled eggs stolen from the Porton Down research facility / death factory in Wiltshire. Harry Palmer, of course, has to stop the plot, get back the eggs, and try to fiddle as many expenses as he can. 

Much of the filming was done in Finland.

Mlle. Dorleac.

'So, who else is coming to this long johns party?'

The mercenary fighters of the free world.

Very subdued for a Russell film (Ken admitted that he toed the line in order to prove himself, hoping to later be allowed to make his own, more personal films - a successful stratagem, as it happens), and with a tired, low key performance from star Michael Caine, 'BDB' is a fairly typical sixties espionage film: stylish, complex, slightly swinging, ultimately nonsensical.

'I'll see you lot in 28 years time' 
The most Bond of the three 'anti Bond' Palmer films, the production is distinguished by its modernist sets, an attractive turn from Francoise Dorleac (Catherine Deneuve's sister, who died in a car crash before finishing all of her scenes) and, best of all, a great set piece finale that channels Eisenstein and sparks the Ken we know and love into action - Midwinter's whiteclad army are attacked as they advance across a frozen lake and are annihilated, sinking slowly and horribly beneath the ice to the stirring strains of Shostakovich. It's a brilliantly put together sequence that must have done Ken a lot of favours in Hollywood - I can hear the United Artists executives now - 'Ken Russell - finally, a British guy we can trust!'...

1 comment:

  1. Still in the top 5 of my favourite films. I'm a huge Caine fan anyway but he does something genuinely interesting with Palmer here, proving there was still plenty of mileage in the character.

    Shame Horse Under Water, the other Deighton novel, wasn't filmed. Though it was mooted for Nigel Davenport when Caine finally said no.

    It's wonderfully flamboyant as only a 60s film can be. I say it's the Blow Up of the 60s spy genre.

    As you say, sadly Caine resurrected Palmer in the 90s and the back to back euro movies were dreadful. But not before Lindsay Shonteff brought Spy Story to the screen in the late 70s and Oscar Homalka's Stok turned into Derren Nesbitt?!?!

    Shame that when they rebooted Bond they didn't reboot this too. Set in the 60s, whack Mike Hodges behind the camera,maybe Clive Owen in front of it. Who knows?