Billion Dollar Brain is the third in the series of films starring Michael Caine as decidedly non-Bond British agent Harry Palmer. These films were conceived by Bond producer Harry Saltzman as an alternative to that series. Where the Bond franchise became synonymous with exoticism and escapism, the Palmer films tend toward the bleak and downbeat. Although they eschew the broad parody of the Matt Helm films or In Like Flint, there’s definitely an icy and mordant humor that runs throughout the series. Billion Dollar Brain gets a lot of mileage out of this wintry discontent: from the password that quotes the opening monologue from Shakespeare’s Richard III, and the name of its lunatic American antagonist, Midwinter, to the shivery snowbound location shooting in Finland. Which is to say, Harry Palmer is the spy who never gets to come in from the cold.
Len Deighton’s story is still scarily relevant. Texas oil billionaire General Midwinter (Ed Begley), who also happens to be a religious zealot and a self-proclaimed patriot of the first water, wants to jumpstart some “regime change” in the Baltics with his Crusade for Freedom against the “godless Commies.” Begley, 1960s cinema’s go-to thespian for outsized bluster, really lets loose here, chewing his way through several eye-popping sets’ worth of scenery, including the “21st-century” headquarters of his titular mainframe brain, a setup that “makes the Pentagon look like a room in the Alamo,” and which was in actuality filmed at Honeywell’s home offices.
In keeping with the series’s disillusioned view of espionage, Palmer isn’t summoned for a sit-down at MI5 and showered with an assortment of shiny new gadgets; rather, he’s practically indentured into secret servitude via misdirection and ultimately blackmail. Far from the self-assured, always-in-control Bond, the patsy-like Palmer often seems lost in the labyrinth of someone else’s narrative, a pawn being played upon by larger forces. Deighton’s narrative is baroquely overstuffed with betrayal and back-stabbing (sometimes all too literally), complete with the requisite femme fatale, Anya (Françoise Dorléac), whose ambiguous motivation is fully revealed only in the film’s final moments.
One of the biggest reasons Billion Dollar Brain remains the standout in the Palmer series can be attributed to the relentless stylization brought to the project by director Ken Russell in his feature-film debut. Though it’s a far cry from the unhinged hysterics of The Devils, or Tommy’s antic lyricism, let alone the hallucinatory pyrotechnics of Altered States, Russell’s directorial fingerprints are all over Billion Dollar Brain. And that’s never more apparent than in a central scene that takes place on Midwinter’s ranch. Only Russell could so easily and economically transform a cornpone hoe-down into a fiery, scarifying rally straight out of Triumph of the Will. And, being something of an equal-opportunity agitprop assimilator, Russell stages the (anti)climactic (non)confrontation between Midwinter’s private army and the airpower of Russian Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka) as an irreverent gloss on Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. Harry Palmer makes the ideal anti-Bond, and Billion Dollar Brain provides him with his most visually and thematically compelling platform.
Billion Dollar Brain looks decent enough in Kino’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer, even if it isn’t the most impressive release from their ongoing Studio Classics line. The image appears somewhat soft overall. Colors can get a bit muted at times, though the neon-lit opener looks appropriately moody. The transfer does convey fine details with reasonable precision. The Master Audio mono mix presents the dialogue faithfully, and puts across Richard Rodney Bennett’s dissonant and evocative score quite well.
There’s a pretty beat-up transfer of the original theatrical trailer.
Ken Russell’s bracing Billion Dollar Brain gets a solid, if unspectacular, transfer (and little in the way of extras) from Kino Lorber.