Color, 1967, 111m.
Directed by Ken Russell
Starring Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Françoise Dorléac, Oskar Homolka, Guy Doleman, Vladek Sheybal
Kino Lorber (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), MGM (DVD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
Color, 1967, 111m.
One of the great spy series of the '60s closed out on an insane note with Billion Dollar Brain, the third big screen adventure for British MI5 agent Harry Palmer. Michael Caine had already portrayed the disgruntled spy in The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, each helmed by a different director, and this one took an unexpected turn by offering a young tyro named Ken Russell with his first major assignment after an acclaimed run of TV productions. Russell was famously reluctant to take the job, but he still managed to infuse it with his flamboyant visual style and oddball sense of humor. Furthermore it teamed him up with ace cinematographer Billy Williams, with whom he would reunited two years later for what is often regarded as the first "real" Ken Russell feature, Women in Love.
The Harry Palmer films (which continued later with a pair of TV productions with Caine in the mid-'90s) were an unusual counterpoint to the popular James Bond series, which offered a more accessible mixture of popcorn sex and violence. The Palmers were more dark and cynical, with this one offering a particularly complex view of Soviet, British and American relations as seen through the lens of black comedy. The films were overseen by producer Harry Saltzman, who also co-produced all of the Bond films through The Man with the Golden Gun, and here he brought along a couple of familiar faces from the 007 series, Vladek Sheybal (who joined Russell again for Women in Love and The Boy Friend) and Guy Doleman, who had appeared in Thunderball along with the two previous Palmer films. Otherwise it's a film full of wild cards including a pair of Oscar winners (Karl Malden and Ed Begley) and the gorgeous Françoise Dorléac, sister of Catherine Deneuve, who was fresh off of Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort and Roman Polanski's Cul-de-sac. Sadly she would be killed in a traffic accident before this, her final film, was released to theaters.
Though it sticks quite closely to the Len Deighton source novel, the episodic story has a frenetic quality in Russell's hands that often feels like it's about to break apart at any moment. We first meet our hero as a sullen private eye whose office is infiltrated (all with the proper paperwork, of course) by his former boss (Doleman), who enlists him into service for another assignment. A baffling phone call from a computerized voice sends Palmer off to Helsinki to deliver a metal cannister whose x-ray reveals a shipment of eggs, which he delivers into the hands of an old colleague, Leo Newbigen (Malden), and his adulterous lover/compatriot, Anya (Dorléac). The plot soon thickens with the involvement of a crazed Texan oil capitalist, General Midwinter (Begley), who's amassing a private army and using Leo to rig a supercomputer into a tricky game of toppling communist influence, and the returning Colonel Stok (Homolka), who tangled with Palmer in the previous film. Exactly who can be trusted remains in doubt until the twisty finale in which Midwinter and the rest of the cast wind up meeting their fate on icy landscape of Latvia.
Bolstered by a strong early score by Richard Rodney Bennett and some terrific scope camerawork (virtually every shot is a keeper), Billion Dollar Brain somehow juggles all of its strange elements without dropping all balls along the way. Caine is perfect as usual, and the exaggerated, comic book attitude towards world politics actually looks a lot less outrageous today given the increasing lack of decorum on the world stage. There's a lot to enjoy here from start to finish, and any chance to see Dorléac in one of her few leading roles is worth the price of admission by itself. Unfortunately the United Artists production hit a serious legal snag after its theatrical run when a brief scene (less than 30 seconds) showing Caine making his way through a room of Beatles-obsessed smugglers kept the film off of most TV screens and the home video market for years thanks to the inclusion of a snippet of "A Hard Day's Night" on the soundtrack. Eventually the film made it to both DVD and HD airings with that bit of footage excised, which causes a slight editorial blip but doesn't really affect the overall film one way or the other. (It's readily viewable online if you do a casual search, for those who are interested.)
Released in late 2014 on Blu-ray and a reissued DVD from Kino Lorber, Billion Dollar Brain is a title that really benefits from the bump to 1080p thanks to its intricate visuals with many scenes lasting a matter of seconds. In particular it's fun to pick out visual motifs that would turn up in later Russell films, such as the metal-headed Midwinter army whose arrangements foreshadow similar pinball and ball bearing imagery in Russell's Tommy years later. The whole transfer looks great, with the requisite flashy opening credits by Bond veteran Maurice Binder still working like a charm. The DTS-HD mono track sounds fine as well, and the sole extra is the theatrical trailer (which looks considerably less impressive from a lesser interlaced source). If you're a real completist, there's also a fun vintage making-of featurette that's floating around online as well.