Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

I’m not sure if this is really a cult movie, but it is an under-appreciated movie, and it isBillion Dollar Brain, released in 1967, was the third of the Harry Palmer spy movies of the 1960s. Some people don't regard it as a true Ken Russell movie but I don’t agree. I think it has his visual signature all over it. And it has the characteristic Russell excess. It has almost nothing in common with the earlier Harry Palmer films. There's no pretence here of a realistic spy thriller. Billion Dollar Brain has more in common with Dr Strangelove, or even Apocalypse Now. This is the strange, deluded, paranoid world of the right-wing zealot. It's a surreal world of plots, both imaginary and real, a glimpse inside the mind of a madman. It's the mental landscape of the obsessed. If you’ve always wondered what a Ken Russell spy movie would be like, this is it. If you were going to compare it to another Ken Russell film it would have to be The Devils, with General Midwinter's rabidly anti-communist conservative fanatics in place of the religious fanatics of the later movie. The plot concerns an attempt by a crazed Texan oil billionaire to overthrow Soviet communism. In many of the British spy movies of the 60s there is no moral difference between the Cold War antagonists. That's not the case here – in this movie the Russians are unequivocally the good guys.

Harry Palmer provided Michael Caine with one of his best roles and he turns in a fine performance. Karl Malden is superb as corrupt CIA agent Leo Newbigen. It’s a role that allows him to be more flamboyant and more morally ambiguous than usual and he’s clearly enjoying himself. Ed Begley is terrifying as General Midwinter, while Oscar Homolka is delightful as the cynical but extremely likeable KGB chief Colonel Stok. Billion Dollar Brain looks superb, with some fascinatingly odd and interesting sets and enormous visual flair. It also benefits from a great score by Richard Rodney Bennett. This isn't just a real Ken Russell movie, it's a great Ken Russell movie. It's a fantastic movie. I can't recommend this movie too highly.

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