Billion Dollar Brain Review

Even though the spy movie lives on to this day – James Bond is still with us (whoever will play him next), and the Bourne series is doing well – the height of the genre must still be regarded as the sixties. Bond himself was at his peak, and the cold war setting of the day served as a perfect backdrop. During this time, another spy was also working for British Intelligence, but whereas Ian Fleming’s Bond was saving the world from larger-than-life super-villains, Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer was doing things in a much more down to earth manner. When Bond was getting the girl, Palmer was filling out government expense forms in triplicate; when Bond was destroying the bad guy’s lair, Palmer was in his boss’s office, asking for a £300 a year pay rise. So Harry Palmer could be regarded as the “real” spy, the “Anti-Bond” almost. In his first two movie outings this was certainly the way things happened. In The Ipcress File he dealt with the abduction and brainwashing of British scientists, and in Funeral in Berlin defections from the East was the topic, all in a far more realistic way than Bond ever went about things. By the time we reached the third film in the series in Billion Dollar Brain though, things were taking a bit more of a “Bond”-ish tone.

Billion Dollar Brain opens with Palmer having quit the services and taken up a new job as a somewhat sleazy private investigator. Not even a visit from his old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) can persuade him to return to his old post. Besides, at the same time he receives a somewhat bizarre and mechanical telephone call, requesting him to deliver a package to a location in what turns out to be Helsinki in Finland. There he meets old friend Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) who gives him a job working for the organization he has got himself involved in. This organization sends orders via a huge computer, or the “Billion Dollar Brain” from their headquarters in Texas. In Texas is super-wealthy oilman and self-styled General Midwinter (Ed Begley), a “commie”-hating ultra right-winger. He plans to “save” the world from the evils of Communism, starting by aiding an uprising in Latvia with his private army. This is all organized and controlled by his super-computer; however what even that has failed to take into account is that Leo has been fiddling the system, by inventing agents and pocketing their salaries for himself.

On the face of it this is the weakest of the Harry Palmer movies (not including the two far more recent movies Bullet to Bejing and Midnight in St Petersburg). In terms of story it deviates away from the serious “Anti-Bond” plots of the first two movies and moves into a larger-than-life and at times almost silly arena. Even Maurice Binder was brought in to add his James Bond style opening titles to the mix. But if for the purists of the time it was a step backwards, thirty-five years or so on it can at least be appreciated for its perfect “sixties” feel. A bespectacled Michael Caine was at his most sixties iconic, Richard Rodney Bennett’s score provides a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, and the Finnish snowscape provides a stunning backdrop. Ken Russell directs with a large amount of restraint, though this isn’t really too surprising as this was still the time that he was directing his composer series of films such as Song of Summer, and long before the rampaging excesses of such films as Lisztomania and Tommy.

Michael Caine is of course the heart of the film, and delivers one of his trademark stylish performances. Even when some of his dialogue feels a little stilted - several times he delivers the line “Let’s go and see General Midwinter” and each time it jars – but he still does it with style. Good support comes from Karl Malden as the “in it for himself” Leo Newbigen and Françoise Dorleac as the mysterious Anya. (Dorleac was the elder sister of Catherine Deneuve and was tragically killed in a car crash not long after this film was made). Ed Begley brings the right level of madness, passion and paranoia to the Communist hating General Midwinter. The finest supporting actor though is Oscar Homolka as Colonel Stok, reprising his role from the previous movie. His affectionate referral of Palmer as “Eeeenglish!” and their previous history sees him as the only person who actually seems to care about Palmer’s well-being, everyone else is in it either for themselves or their country.

Although not the best of the Harry Palmer movies from a serious story point of view, this movie retains a lot of character due to its great sixties feel, along with Michael Caine at the height of his powers. Even though the story does stray away from the other movies and far more into Bond territory, it is still a very watchable spy thriller. And obviously from its very sixties feel it has dated, but then again a story about a crazy right-wing Texan who wants to eliminate all he thinks is evil from the world? Maybe it’s not that out of date after all…

The Disc
This movie has been planned for release on DVD for some time now, but was held up due to apparent licensing issues with a Beatles song featured on the soundtrack. This seems to have been solved by the removal of a few seconds of a scene in Latvia, where a “Hard Day’s Night” was playing on a gramophone in the background.

Considering the age of the piece, the picture quality here is pretty good. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image looks reasonably clear, though inevitably there is some print damage in evidence, and more than a few times you will notice the odd hairline down the middle of the picture. But to see the film in its proper ratio again, after the chopped presentations on its (seemingly) annual television outings is certainly refreshing.

Just a 2.0 track is presented here, but expecting anything more would of course be unrealistic, as this in itself is derived from an original mono source. The dialogue is clear and the beautiful musical score comes over pretty well. This is more than can be said for those non-English speakers who have to rely on the French, Spanish, German or Italian re-dubs, which suffer the frequent problem of being way too “dub-heavy” and pushing the rest of the soundtrack too far into the background.

Although it is nice to see this film is now available on DVD format, it is very disappointing that there is no extra material here whatsoever, not even a trailer. In fact, the disc has been put together very much as basically as possible, with icons rather than text for the standard menu items, to allow a single menu system to be used for all languages.

Final Thoughts
It’s good to see Billion Dollar Brain finally getting a DVD release, especially as it was apparently test pressed as early as two years ago. For a film that’s pushing forty years old the picture and sound quality are both pretty good. A big disappointment that there are no extras at all, but nonetheless it is definitely recommended, especially for Michael Caine fans.

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