Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

*. For all their setting in the Cold War, the Bond movies are almost entirely uninterested in that epic contest, or in geopolitics more generally. They aren’t political films at all, especially with SMERSH being replaced by the fanciful SPECTRE organization. But Len Deighton was more grounded, and Billion-Dollar Brain (the novel had the hyphen, correctly, in the title) was one of the most political of the “Harry Palmer” stories (I have to put his name in quotation marks because he’s unnamed in the books).
*. This gives the film a bit more of a contemporary resonance, as the fire-breathing anti-communist General Midwinter (Ed Begley) is a type who is still with us (though he’s had to come up with new enemies). And while he certainly comes off as a caricature, I’m not sure that makes him any less realistic. We’ve become used to caricatures in political life in the twenty-first century.

*. It’s also a bit strange how fresh the computer angle feels. Let’s face it, few items have dated as badly as computers. The stacks of punch cards, giant reels of magnetic tape, and piles of paper spooling out of the printer are things that take some of us a long way back. But at the same time, we’re also more used to the idea of computers controlling everything, not to mention automated voice messages (and bonus points if you recognized that the voice belongs to Donald Sutherland, who also has a bit part as one of the technicians).
*. Having said that, it seems a little odd to me that the Brain (the computer) has such a small role to play in this movie. It seems clear that the maniac Midwinter is the one who is calling all the shots. What exactly does the Brain do except make creepy phone calls?
*. Initial reviews, which were mainly negative, complained that the story was hard to follow. Actually, Deighton is even harder. They make a lot of changes to the book, especially at the end, but overall I thought they did a reasonable job of streamlining things. I had no trouble understanding what was going on, even though the book still confuses me somewhat.
*. As with other films in the series a lot of the team from the Bond films gets some work here. The opening titles are by Maurice Binder. Syd Cain did the production design. And that’s Vladek Sheybal, who played SMERSH’s chessmaster in From Russia With Love as the doctor.

*. The rights were bought before the book was published and I wonder if Deighton was trying to write something more cinematic in the Bond vein. The megalomaniacal villain with a secret lair and a private army, for example. In the book he even has an artificial hand, like Dr. No. But the novel ends on a quiet note whereas they go full Bond here at the end with its epic homage to Alexander Nevsky (even using the same score). None of this makes sense in terms of the plot, but movie audiences had come to expect a bang at the end of Bond and Bond-like films.
*. Ken Russell. Not an obvious choice to direct (he’d mainly been doing television documentaries up to this point), but he was a friend of Caine’s, who recommended him to producer Harry Saltzman (I’ve also read that André De Toth had been tabbed to direct but had an accident, and that he in turn recommended Russell). Caine would soon admit this was a bad decision, calling Russell “a lunatic genius” and “the least ideal man to direct a thriller.” Russell himself would come to consider it a career mistake, wasting a year of his life. He would also feel embittered toward Saltzman, with whom he did not get along.
*. In his Trailers from Hell episode on Billion Dollar Brain Bernard Rose says that Russell didn’t add much to the movie aside from the operatic climax. I think this is wrong. Compared to other spy movies of the time it’s really quite stylish and clever, makes good use of its locations, and moves quite well. If anything, I wish he’d given the actors a bit more room. But then that’s not the kind of movie this is.
*. Caine is solid, as always, even in long underwear or an Astrakhan hat. And this time he’s backed up by a very good supporting cast. Karl Malden and Françoise Dorléac are both believable as a totally untrustworthy pair who shouldn’t be trusting each other. Ed Begley is surprisingly convincing as the sweaty Midwinter, always seeming to be just a moment away from cardiac arrest. Guy Doleman returns as Colonel Ross, which is actually another bit of streamlining. In the novels Ross, who is military intelligence, is a rival of Dawlish, the guy who is the head of Palmer’s organization.

*. There was controversy in the U.S. over the sympathetic portrayal of the Soviets (with Oskar Homolka back as the garrulous Colonel Stok). They might also have taken exception to the Texas oilman being portrayed as a full-throated Christian fascist, complete with all kinds of visual echoes of Nazi rallies and cowboys appearing as stormtroopers. Americans tend to get upset at this kind of thing.
*. If I had to rank them, I’d say this is my favourite of the Palmer flicks and the only one I can return to. I find it quite enjoyable, and it’s interesting in a lot of different ways as a historical/cultural time capsule. Alas, Saltzman had originally planned to do five Harry Palmer movies but after this flopped he cut his losses. Caine would go on to make two more Palmer movies in the 1990s, Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in Saint Petersburg, but by then the world had changed. In this movie it’s still called Leningrad, and by the ’90s the Brain really had taken over anyway.

10 thoughts on “Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

  1. tensecondsfromnow

    I’d agree that this is the best of the “palmer’ films, if only because it;s halfway Palmer, halfway Bond, and a dash of Ken Russell helps it all go down well. Yes, the computers are less than portable, but this is, as you say, a wityy and stylish film that has lots of fun with genre tropes. Given what Russell did next, it’s nice to see him telling a story…..

    Reply
      1. tensecondsfromnow

        I’m a fan of him going off the rails too, but his visual flair is an asset when telling a slightly drag story. The ice trucking scene is awesome here, and I think comes from his BBC Omnibus days of matching classic music to action.

      2. Alex Good Post author

        I thought the tension between him and Chayefsky worked on Altered States. Tommy, I thought, was a disaster. I’ve heard good things about his work on composers but haven’t seen it.

  2. fragglerocking

    Another one I missed, I don’t think I was a movie person when all these came out, but I was only 8yrs old so am forgiving myself. Not inclined to go retro and see what I missed, so far.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      This one is kind of interesting, if only for the way there’s so much about Midwinter that’s quite contemporary. But it’s a stylish exercise too. Of course, if you don’t like Caine . . .

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        A lot of stuff from the ’60s has dated in unfortunate ways, but this one holds up. In general I think the ’60s were a better decade for movies than the ’90s say. I don’t think we’ll look back on the 2010s very kindly either. I imagine heads shaking at all the superheroes and CGI.

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