Billion Dollar Brain (1967)


(director: Ken Russell; screenwriters: John McGrath/based on the novel Billion Dollar Brain by Len Deighton; cinematographer: Billy Williams; editor: Alan Osbiston; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Karl Malden (Leo Newbegin), Ed Begley (General Midwinter), Francoise Dorleac (Anya), Oscar Homolka (Colonel Stock),Vladek Sheybal (Dr Erwart), Guy Doleman (Colonel Ross), Milo Sperber (Basil); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Harry Saltzman; Columbia TriStar Home Video; 1967-UK)

“It’s far-fetched, but it’s fun.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Cold War spy film based on the novel by Len Deighton has Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), the reluctant secret agent from The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966), back again in Ken Russell’s (“Women in Love”/”The Music Lovers”/”The Devils”) Billion Dollar Brain. It’s far-fetched, but it’s fun. Harry quit the spy game to devote himself to private detective work, but is coerced through blackmail to re-join MI5 by his former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman).

Writer John McGrath keeps the plot slow in developing and when revealed seems incomprehensible, even for this Bond type of Pop Art spy film where plot is generally thought of as irrelevant. But the entire cast is superb, and the film hangs in there with plenty of double-crosses, twists and entertaining odd quirks in the conventional spy story. What’s surprising is that it’s devoid of Russell’s usual excesses and arty pretensions (probably because this is only Russell’s second feature).

Harry receives a mysterious call in his London flat and travels to frigid Helsinki on a secret mission involving virulent eggs delivered in a package (the eggs were stolen from a secret British laboratory). He meets a mysterious pretty blonde Eastern European contact, Anya (Francoise Dorleac, killed in an auto accident after making the film), who takes him to a wintry location where he’s to be paid off for the delivery. There he encounters former American CIA agent Leo Newbegin (Karl Malden), an old slippery colleague he once saved, who is now working privately and informs him that he’s the mystery person who sent for him. Leo is nude in the sauna and his hottie cohort also takes off her clothes, and when Harry’s still dressed a chortling Leo tells him “Don’t be so British!”

Harry is suspicious of Leo’s job offer and the spy scam he’s working on (establishing a secret underground in Latvia for a revolution), especially, after being told by Leo that he’s employed by the crazed extreme right-winger Texan oil billionaire General Midwinter (Ed Begley), a ranting and raving lunatic-figure obsessed with overthrowing the Communist regime in Russia through his organization “Crusade For Freedom.”

Investigating on his own, Harry finds that the man in Finland he was supposed to deliver the package to, Kaarna, has been murdered. While in Kaarna’s apartment, he’s kidnapped by Colonel Ross and put once again on the Brit spy payroll to find out what the superpatriot organization based in Texas is up to and why they stole the eggs.

The deeper Harry gets involved the more he learns that his best friend is his old foe from Berlin, the good humored Russian Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka), who keeps bailing him out of danger and shows his soft side as he weeps at a performance of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. The two work together, in the end, to stop the fanatical Midwinter’s forces from causing a revolution in Latvia by the use of his giant billion dollar computer in his Texas hideaway, the releasing of the deadly virus eggs, and the use of his own private army.