Harry Palmer has left the British Secret Service and become a private detective. One of his first assignments is to deliver an apparently innocent thermos flask to an old friend in Helsinki, Palmer is suspicious of the flask contents and begins to doubt the motives of his friend and those of his boss a Texan billionaire.
Michael Caine ... Harry Palmer
Karl Malden ... Leo Newbigen
Ed Begley ... General Midwinter
Oskar Homolka ... Colonel Stok (as Oscar Homolka)
Françoise Dorléac ... Anya (as Francoise Dorleac)
Guy Doleman ... Colonel Ross
Vladek Sheybal ... Dr. Eiwort
Milo Sperber ... Basil
Janos Kurutz ... Latvian gangster
I'm baffled by the dislike afforded this enjoyable sixties romp. The charge that it is less realistic than the previous films is groundless because the others weren't the real world either. The first featured some daft business with a psychedelic torture chamber and the second some far fetched romps around the Berlin wall. Of course, the events in 'Brain' are no less credible. The kremlin wouldn't allow a top Colonel to be chums with a British spy, let alone allow him to wander around Latvia taking photographs. The real purpose is to open the plot and make it more colourful, and also the opportunity to satirise entrenched positions and the madness of humanity. Recent events in Russia, especially under Yeltsin, prove that truth is definitely stranger than fiction. The score is terrific and the breath-neck direction may be enough to make it accessible to young, contemporary film fans.
The cast is superb. Guy Doleman is brilliant again as the supercilious Colonel Ross. The scene where he spills the cereals and refuses to move his feet while Palmer sweeps them up is priceless. The Russian spy Anya gives a hilarious speech of ennui about her father on the boat with Palmer and Oskar Homolka as Colonel Stock gives a short, classic lament on the ice flow written by John McGrath who does a great job here, especially in his cutting swipes at blinkered thinking. "The air in Texas is pure. That's why I haven't set foot outside of Texas in twenty five years" yells the batty General Midwinter. But the most chilling and truthful exchange occurs between Palmer and amoral spy Leo Newbigen. "When he gets between five miles of the Latvian border, every alarm in the world is gonna blow and four minutes later no one is going to be around." - "You want your money, don't you?"
Ken Russell began his career doing documentaries about classical composers and his experience pays off here in his use of sound with image. Anyone bored with current fair and hasn't seen this trilogy could do worse in giving them a go. This one was the best, in my opinion.
When ex-agent Harry Palmer recieves a mysterious request to deliver a flask to Finland in return for a fee, Col. Ross forcibly re-employs him with British Intelligence. Palmer is ordered to proceed to Finland with the flask (which contains deadly nerve gas), in an attempt to infiltrate the organisation of Texan oil billionaire Gen. Midwinter, who is believed to be behind an anti-Soviet plot of some kind.
The third and final of the Harry Palmer films (if you don't count the two woeful straight to cable efforts of the mid-nineties) is generally considered to be the weakest. The strength of both 'The Ipcress File' and 'Funeral In Berlin' was that they were the complete antithesis of the Bond films, portraying the spying game as mundane, shadowy and unglamorous. However, with 'Billion Dollar Brain' maverick director Ken Russell presents the audience with an outlandish plot and large futuristic sets, which seem at odds with the style of its predecessors. The result is that the film appears to be aping Bond, and as such the character of Palmer is less effective.
Despite these shortcomings there are pleasures to be had. Michael Caine once again displays wit and charm as Palmer, Guy Doleman is his usual droll self as Ross and Oskar Homolka makes a very welcome return as Col. Stok. Ed Begley gives his all as the lunatic Midwinter, Karl Malden provides reliable support as an old aquaintence of Palmer, and the tragic Francois Dorleac lends an exotic mystery to her character. The snowbound Finnish locations are beautifully filmed and the production design by Bond man Syd Cain is very stylish.
Ultimately the film is let down by rather wild and undisciplined direction and a cartoonish finale. It's a shame that 'Billion Dollar Brain' strayed so far from the template of the previous films, but its by no means all bad, and can be reasonably entertaining if you're in the right mood.
BILLON DOLLAR BRAIN features a rabid anti communist meglomaniac in the role of villain General Midwinter and it`s up to British agent Harry Palmer to stop his lunatic scheme
I wonder how many people at the time realised the irony of rabid right winger Midwinter being portrayed as a looney villain ? In 1967 President Johnson was spending billions of American dollars and tens of thousands of American lives to protect South East Asia from communism while plenty of main stream right wing American politicians like Ronald Reagan thought the Johnson administration weren`t going far enough to protect the free world from the red menace . So the over the top rhetoric from Midwinter feels more like biting satire than the rantings of a mad man . It`s also good to see a movie making a nod towards the sacrifice of nearly 30 million Soviet citizens lives during the second world war , many of them being murdered by nationalists from puppet regimes created by the Nazis .
I think this is undoubtedly the best of the Harry Palmer movies , helped in no small part by Ken Russell`s not quite mainstream , not quite art house direction . Caine is in good form as are the rest of the cast , but of course the best performance award goes to Ed Begley as General Midwinter who rants about the evils of communism and preaches the virtues of the free world without pausing to draw breath . BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN also features early appearances from Susan George and Donald Sutherland in blink and you`ll miss them roles .
Entertaining thriller and an interesting one for not making the commies the bad guys . Compare it to THE GREEN BERETS if you want to know the difference between chalk and cheese
* Michael Caine performed most of his own stunts. During the final ice floe scene, he almost slipped and fell into freezing water.
* This was the third Harry Palmer film, after The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966). Michael Caine had originally signed a five-picture deal, but when he was reluctant to return to the role, producer Harry Saltzman let him out of the contract. Much later, though, he did make two more Harry Palmer films: Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1996).
* Although the film follows the novel quite closely, for unknown reasons Karl Malden's character name was changed from "Harvey Newbegin" in the book, to "Leo Newbigen" for the film.
* Ken Russell was contractually obligated to direct the film. He did not want to do it, but according to him "it was shoved down my throat".
* The bombers that General Stok sends to sink the convoy are actually British Canberras.