Thursday, November 09, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #9: Billion Dollar Brain

Well, it's back to Edinburgh for day three of the BBC Radio drama lab, so here's another excerpt from my book Starring Michael Caine. For those who are enjoying all the 1960s film posters [hi, Jock!] featured in these entries, you can see more by visiting the Michael Caine Film Poster Site. Love those groovy 60s graphics!


Cast: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Karl Malden (Leo Newbigen), Ed Begley (General Midwinter), Oscar Homolka (Colonel Stok), Françoise Dorleac (Anya), Guy Doleman (Colonel Ross), Vladek Sheybal (Dr Eiwort), Milo Sperber (Basil), Stanley Caine (G P O Special Delivery Boy), Donald Sutherland (Scientist at Computer), Susan George (Russian Girl on Train).

Crew: Ken Russell (director), Harry Saltzman (producer), John McGrath (writer), Richard Rodney Bennett (music), Billy Williams (cinematography), Alan Osbiston (editor), Syd Cain (production designer).

Synopsis: British spy Harry Palmer has resigned from MI5 and set up his own detective agency. An anonymous phone call offers Harry £400 to deliver a package to Helsinki. When he arrives, Palmer is met by a woman called Anya. She takes him to her lover, Leo Newbigen, a former CIA agent and old acquaintance of Harry. Leo invites Palmer to work with him for a covert organisation, Crusade for Freedom. Harry’s former boss, Colonel Ross, coerces him into rejoining MI5. The colonel says the package contained eggs filled with a deadly virus stolen from a British research laboratory. Palmer is assigned to get the eggs back from Crusade for Freedom. Palmer travels to Latvia for a meeting with local Crusade for Freedom agents. During the night he is visited by Russian General Stok, who warns him about Crusade for Freedom’s boss, General Midwinter. Stok says Midwinter is planning to create an anti-communism revolution in Latvia. Harry discovers the local agents are just gangsters. Harry and Leo travel to Texas where Midwinter shows off his super-computer, the Billion Dollar Brain. Leo is faking the existence of 300 agents in Latvia and pocketing their pay. Palmer convinces Midwinter of Leo’s duplicity. Harry returns to Helsinki and locates Anya when she collects the virus eggs. Anya leads Palmer to Leo, but she escapes with the eggs. Midwinter launches an invasion of Latvia from Finland, leading his army across the frozen water between the two countries. Harry and Leo try to stop the Crusade for Freedom forces. But the Russians are expecting the army and blow up the ice. Everyone drowns except for Harry. Stok and Anya arrive by helicopter. She was Stok’s agent in Finland. The colonel gives Palmer the eggs back as a gift for Ross…

The first Harry Palmer film, The Ipcress File, had been a hit for producer Harry Saltzman in 1965. A sequel, Funeral in Berlin, followed a year later. In 1967 the third film in the series was made, with Ken Russell as director. John McGrath was hired to adapt Len Deighton’s complex thriller into a screenplay. ‘Billion Dollar Brain was a complicated and difficult novel,’ Russell told Films and Filming in 1970. ‘When one came to analyse it and try to make a film script, it just didn’t add up. Probably one should have abandoned it then and there, but I was promised I could do other films … if I made Billion Dollar Brain.’ Russell had been a television director for a decade and shot only one previous feature film, French Dressing (1963). Billion Dollar Brain had a budget of $3 million, the biggest yet for a Harry Palmer film. Caine returned as the reluctant spy. Also back were Guy Doleman as his British boss and Oscar Homolka as Stok.

Almost all the location work was shot around Finland in sub-zero temperatures. In 1997 Caine told GQ about working with Russell. ‘British movie crews have a way of sussing things out. By the third day he was known as Rasputin.’ Studio work was completed at Pinewood, with Caine rushing away afterwards to Paris for filming of his short sequence in Woman Times Seven (1967) with Shirley MacLaine. Leading lady Françoise Dorleac died in a car crash not long after the Palmer film wrapped.

Billion Dollar Brain was released in the US during December 1967. In Britain the BBFC required minor cuts before granting an A certificate. The film hit UK cinemas in January 1968, accompanied by scathing notices from critics. ‘The worst reviews I’ve seen for one of my own films for a long time were those for Billion Dollar Brain,’ Caine told Films and Filming in 1969. He said the movie still make quite a lot of money. Three years later Caine criticised the picture in an interview with the Radio Times: ‘Ken Russell, who directed it, is a friend of mine. But he lost the story somewhere, and no one could care a damn about what was going on because they couldn’t follow what was going on.’

In 1968 Caine announced he was giving up the role of Harry Palmer. ‘After three films I don’t think the Palmer character holds anything for me anymore. The films have helped me a lot. I hope some new actor can give his interpretation of Harry Palmer and have the help I did.’ Plans were announced for a fourth Palmer film, based on the Deighton novel Horse Under Water, but nothing came of it. The character stayed in retirement until the 1990s when Caine returned for two ill-fated films made in Russia.

Billion Dollar Brain was released on rental video in Britain with a PG rating in 1985. But this tape was withdrawn soon afterwards and is now almost impossible to find. All the other Harry Palmer films are available but a problem with musical clearance rights for the Beatles’ song A Hard Day’s Night means an imminent VHS or DVD release for Billion Dollar Brain seems unlikely. [Update: Since this was written, Billion Dollar Brain has been released on DVD - but with the sequence featuring A Hard Day's Night excised.]

If you ever see the film, three cameo appearances are worth spotting. Caine’s brother Stanley makes his acting debut as a postman in the opening scene. A young Susan George shows up as Russian Girl on Train, eating an orange and offering Harry a newspaper as he travels to Latvia. Most noteworthy is Donald Sutherland getting one line as Scientist at Computer, asking Leo ‘What’s going on?’ in Midwinter’s HQ. Sutherland would become a major film star within three years thanks to films like The Dirty Dozen, MASH and Kelly’s Heroes. He later appeared with Caine in The Eagle Has Landed (1976) and takes Noël Coward’s role in the 2003 remake of The Italian Job.

Reviews: ‘I liked much of The Ipcress File, something of Funeral in Berlin, but little of this scarcely comprehensible rigmarole except, perhaps, the snow-covered Finnish scene and Oscar Homolka as a genial old communist.’ – The Daily Telegraph
‘Oscar Homolka inhabits, inimitably, a little film of his own in the middle … and Michael Caine’s presence counts for a lot. But everyone else sinks without trace.’ - MFB

Verdict: As you can tell from the detailed synopsis, Billion Dollar Brain is a film with an overly complicated plot. Ultimately, this gets in the way of everything else and makes the lavish spectacle difficult to enjoy. Russell’s direction has deft visuals, but suffers from sluggish pacing. Caine’s performance as Harry remains consistent, despite this film’s more baroque flavour. Previous pictures were determinedly small scale, but this veers dangerous close to 007 territory with massive sets and globe-trotting adventures. How much you enjoy it will depend on which style of spy film you prefer.

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