Sunday, June 25, 2017

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) feels contradictory. For the third time, Michael Caine returns as Harry Palmer, the deadpan secret agent in thick glasses meant as a realistic alternative to James Bond, and yet the main plot wouldn't feel that far out of place in a 007 adventure.

Some of the elements of the story - a supercomputer dictating policy and the power of a private corporation - feel more relevant today than they did in the 1960s, but the villain's henchmen are cowboys. They wear ten-gallon hats and denim shirts, even as they run around his secret, hi-tech lair.

Meanwhile, the director is Ken Russell, who would go on to make the likes of Altered States, Lair of the White Worm, The Devils, and Tommy based on The Who album. Russell is a strange choice for a hard-boiled espionage thriller; he's better known for his hallucinatory, surreal, bizarre, and at times hysterical style.

That is not to say Billion Dollar Brain is a bad movie. Far from it. It's a lively, energetic entry in the series, Caine brings the goods as the cynical and reluctant agent, the emphasis remains more on characters than on hi-tech gadgetry and action, and it maintains the droll sense of humor of Funeral in London. The plot feels like it's moving a little too close for James Bond territory, but while he might be an unorthodox choice, Russell gives the film a taste of his distinctive touch.

Palmer is out of the British Secret Service but of course ends up drawn back in. This time, he goes to Finland, helping an old friend, Leo, (Karl Malden) smuggle some eggs and being in drawn into a scheme to infiltrate an organization run by a rabid anti-Communist Texas oil tycoon (Ed Begley). Also around is Anya (Francoise Dorleac), who is in a relationship with the married Leo but puts the moves on Harry. The eccentric Colonel Stok (Oscar Holmolka), the Soviet intelligence officer, also pops in to warn Harry about the danger he's putting himself in.

In Funeral in Berlin, director Guy Hamilton brought a workman's touch. He wasn't flashy or showing off. He focused on telling the story. He tended to keep his distance, concerned more with being clear and covering the terrain, so the viewer could follow all the characters even as they committed various double dealings.

By contrast, Russell is more stylish, giving the film a different kind of unsubtle energy. He uses more close ups of the actors' faces, and when we are introduced to Begley's General Midwinter at a barbecue in a Texas oilfield, he stands in front of a tall flame, next to his company's logo that looks suspiciously like Nazi Germany's Reichsadler (the eagle coat of arms).

Russell moves his camera around more as well, and the film feels more frenetic as a result. The aforementioned oil field cookout is shot with a spinning camera in a sea of dancing bodies, and it feels like we're descending into madness. Elsewhere, a tense encounter between Harry and Anya is captured with a long, unbroken take; the camera weaves, bobs, and slants as Harry's world becomes increasingly unsteady.

Billion Dollar Brain still has a light touch and several funny moments and lines, usually the result of Caine's deadpan cynicism and snarky quips; the Finnish setting is suitably cold and wintry while other locations, such Midwinter's lair, are sleeker, more technological, and imposing; and the plot is filled with the expected double crosses, twists, and surprise reveals.

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