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Sep 9, 2007

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

The Harry Palmer movies were an interesting 1960s movie phenomenon. They came out during the time when James Bond was the pop cultural phenomenon of the age. In a sense these movies, based on Len Deighton's novels were a backlash against Bond's upper class sophistication. Deighton never gave his protagonist a name but the protagonist was a rain-coat wearing working class spy in National Health Service glasses who worked for public servant salaries.

The about the movies is that, like the Bond films, they were produced by Harry Saltzman.

BDB is the third in the series. It was directed by Ken Russell and Russell runs full tilt with the opportunity. Palmer has quit the spy business and is working as a down at heels private eye. He sleeps in his office, his sink is full of dishes and there are unpaid bills. He's visited by his ex-boss Colonel Ross (Australian actor Guy Doleman) who has a job for him. Harry declines and then receives a parcel in the mail and a phone call from what we 21st Century cybersophisticates realise is a computerised voice. Take this key, open a locker at the airport and take the contents to Helsinki. There's two hundred quid in it if you do.

Harry does, but not before finding out that his parcel contains eggs. In Helsinki he links up with Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) an old and unreliable colleague, Leo's lover Anya (Françoise Dorléac) and a scam Leo has in Latvia to ostensibly cause a revolution there on behalf of a crazed Texan billionaire General Midwinter (Ed Begley).

Here's Midwinter ranting on his crusade. He sounds like Dubya on amphetamine at times.

General Midwinter: No, you don't understand the kind of love I have for this great country of ours. Love's not built that way, my way, any more. These days love is marriage, and the compensation is alimony; love these days is bravery under fire, and the compensation is medals; love is a donation of party funds, and the compensation is a political plum; love is some lady you left back in St. Louis, or a fast haul in the back seat of an automobile. My love is nothing like that. My love is this great company of brave young men, who are proud to make their country strong!

Of course, Harry's old opposition, Colonel Stok of the KGB (Oskar Homolka) shows up and gently guides Harry out of harms way. In spite of supposedly being on opposite sides, Harry and Stok have a good rapport:

Col.Stok: I suppose a young man like you wouldn't know the pleasure of removing a tight collar.

Harry Palmer: I thought Lenin called such comforts 'momentary interest'.

Col.Stok: Don't tell me what Lenin said. I touched Lenin. I stood by him in Ruzheinaya Square in July, nineteen hundred and twenty; the second congress. I touched him. Those are the words he used to describe the comforts and pleasures with which the proletariat are diverted from their more important historic mission. But they are not being diverted. Well, are you going to offer me another drink?

Harry Palmer: In England Colonel, the historic mission of the proletariat consists almost entirely of momentary interest.

It turns out that Leo has been deceiving Midwinter into financing non-existant revolutionaries in Latvia by programming false data into his billion dollar brain, a massive complex of 1960s Honeywell computers the grunt of which would now fit into a laptop. Midwinter goes ahead with his plan to take his private army across the frozen ice between Finland and Latvia and things get interesting.

Ken Russell's direction is terrific here. The viewer is kept off balance, as indeed is Harry Palmer for most of the movie. I asked myself three or four times, why is that person doing this? only to find out minutes later that there is a very cool reason for them to do so. Richard Rodney Bennett's music for the film is great too. I'd love to get a soundtrack for this one. It's easily on par with his later work on Murder On The Orient Express and comes close to being perfect 1960s spy movie music. The titles of the film are interesting too, having been done by Maurice Binder, who did the titles for all the early Bond films. Check it out.

(Originally posted Saturday, January 22, 2005)

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