Billion Dollar Brain is a 1967 British espionage film directed by Ken Russell and based on the novel Billion-Dollar Brain by Len Deighton. The film features Michael Caine as secret agent Harry Palmer, the anti-hero protagonist of the film versions of The IPCRESS File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966). The “brain” of the title is a sophisticated computer with which an ultra-right-wing organization controls its worldwide anti-Soviet spy network.
Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), who has left MI-5 to work as a private investigator, is told by a mechanical voice on the phone to take a package to Helsinki. He does not know that he is about to encounter his old acquaintance Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) – nor that the package contains virus-filled eggs that have been stolen from the British government’s research facility at Porton Down. Later, he is coerced into working once more for the British secret service. He must become a member of the ‘Crusade for Freedom’ organisation – an ultra-right-wing group led by maniacal oil-billionaire ‘General’ Midwinter (Ed Begley) – and thwart its planned attempt at liberating Latvia from Soviet domination, which would cause a worldwide conflict; he must also recover the stolen virus for the British.
Billion Dollar Brain is the third of the Harry Palmer film series, preceded by The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966). It is the only film in which Ken Russell worked as a mainstream ‘director-for-hire’, and the last film to feature actress Françoise Dorléac.
A fourth film in the series, an adaptation of Horse Under Water, was tentatively planned but never made. However, Caine played Palmer in two later films, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in Saint Petersburg.
British director Ken Russell started out training for a naval career, but after wartime RAF and merchant navy service he switched goals and went into ballet. Supplementing his dancing income as an actor and still photographer, Russell put together a handful of amateur films in the 50s before being hired as a staff director by the BBC. Russell made a name for himself (albeit a name not always spoken in reverence) during the first half of the ‘60s by directing a series of iconoclastic TV dramatizations of the lives of famous composers and dancers. And if he felt that the facts were getting in the way of his story, he’d make up his own — frequently bordering on the libelous. If he had any respect for the famous persons whose lives he probed, it was secondary to his fascination with revealing all warts and open wounds.
A film director since 1963, Russell burst into the international consciousness with 1969’s Women in Love, a hothouse version of the D.H. Lawrence novel. No director… read more
Cold war chiller that cuts no ice as a spy flick. Karl Malden did better work in San Francisco; Ed Begley chews more scenery than the entire state of Texas and even the Brain phones in its part. Interior sets appear to be recycled from other Harry Saltzman productions. Just about everything looks borrowed: the music from Shostakovich, the final battle on the ice from Alexander Nevsky, Jr. Presumably, all of this is campy tongue-in-cheek Ken Russell, in this his first Big Time movie, showing signs of what was to come.
Ridiculous plot, and Michael Caine seems to be phoning it in, especially in the first half. But Russell's over-the-top attitude to the set-pieces and design lend it a camp flair that puncture the second-rate Bond stylings of the script. And the final hour, climaxing in a updating of the end of Eisenstein's ALEXANDER NEVSKY, is truly breath-taking.
This really only seems to work in complete ignorance of the 2 previous films. The menace of Ipcress (and the subversive roguishness of Caine's portrayal) is almost completely MIA here. Musical cues (and some of the set-pieces) play as nothing but camp, even self-parody. Ed Begley's apocalyptic capitalist is a highlight, as well as Françoise Dorléac, whose big-eyed looks constantly recall older sister Catherine.
Veteran Canadian movie producer Harry Saltzman (“The IPCRESS File” & “Goldfinger”) press gangs then up-and-coming BBC Television director Ken Russell (“Women in Love” & “The Devils”) for this… read review