More noise than signal

Billion Dollar Brain

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I’ll have mentioned this in passing when we covered the other Harry Palmer films in our criminally underappreciated episode on Spycraft in February 2016, but mainly in the negative sense. This was based on a much younger, and therefore stupider, me of twenty plus years go. Now, to be clear from the off, this is the worst of the series proper (assuming you rightly ignore the two mediocre made for TV efforts), but it’s an awful lot better than I remembered it to be.

Michael Caine returns, naturally as Harry Palmer, now running a failing private detective agency, but still charmingly contemptuously rebuffing his old boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman)’s job offer. Happily for us, a plot phones him up – a computer generated voice offering him a seemingly simple courier job to Helsinki.

Off Palmer pops, finding on the other end his old friend Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) working alongside Anya (Françoise Dorléac), taking orders from a familiarly voiced computer, apparently based in Texas, belonging to billionaire oil tycoon and die-hard patriot General Midwinter (Ed Begley).

Without going too deep into his plans, he’s very much against communism and is doing his darndest to bring about it’s downfall, up to and including mobilising, somehow, his own army, and using the unparalleled predictive power of his computer brain. By which he means simply a computer. He’s not a cyborg. That would have been awesome. However, Leo’s not been entirely truthful with his inputs on the results of his actions and network of entirely fictional agents across Latvia, whose paychecks he’s been pocketing, and garbage in equals garbage out. So, Midwinter stands ready to kick off World War 3, with Harry Palmer caught in the middle between Colonel Ross and similarly returning KGB acquaintance Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka).

I think the excesses of Billion Dollar Brain stick out a bit more in the mind, certainly compared to the more grounded Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. Ed Begley’s purposefully grandstanding, scenery chewing turn, and the character’s plans stick out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the series, and even the first half of this film, which is as broadly as low-key as the other films. That, it turns out is the point – he is a ridiculous character, and so he is ridiculed, explicitly, even. I know writers who use subtext, and they are cowards.

And if you’re going excess, I suppose Ken Russell is the man to call. I’m not as familiar with his work as perhaps I ought to be, but he’s certainly making his stylistic preference felt here, particularly when Midwinter is going ham. I’m not 100% sure it works, but I’m much more open to it this time around, with a somewhat broader film palette to draw from this time around. It’s like getting David Lynch in to do the next Bond film. It was perhaps a touch too different for my younger self to begin to appreciate, but hey, it’s different. You’ve got to give it that, and in other company it’s more outre nature might had had me giving it the oddball recommendation award. However, we have some right doozies for you coming up today that make this seem pedestrian.

So, better than I remembered, and there’s a lot in here I like. It looks distinctive, Caine remains excellent, and there’s some sharp dialogue in here. And almost uniquely in today’s selection, characters with understandable motives that are related to you in ways that make a degree of logical sense. Yes, it covers the basic requirements for storytelling, and I’ll take what I can get in this episode, but it’s still a step down from Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. Just not as big a one as I remember.