Saturday 22 January 2022

Movie Review: Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

The third film in a series adapting author Len Deighton's Harry Palmer spy adventures to the screen, Billion Dollar Brain steers towards buffoonish satire and crashes into a miserable failure.

In London, Palmer (Michael Caine) has left MI5 and is working as a private investigator. He refuses overtures by his former boss Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) to return to the service, instead accepting a computer-issued assignment to deliver a package to Helsinki. There he meets Anya (Françoise Dorléac) and her partner Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), who are involved in a plot financed by Texas megalomaniac General Midwinter (Ed Begley) to fight communism with the help of computer analytics.

Deploying strong arm tactics, Ross does succeed in convincing Palmer to rejoin MI5. Palmer makes his way to Latvia's capital Riga and gets reacquainted with his jovial Soviet foe Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka). Palmer uncovers Midwinter's plan to force the Soviets out of Latvia, and realizes Leo has his own agenda to make a lot of money on the side. 

Combining controversial director Ken Russell with a spy milieu in frigid surroundings was always going to be a risk, and sure enough, it just does not work. Producer Harry Saltzman ends up with a mess on his hands, Billion Dollar Brain falling into a wide gap between muddled espionage, failed satire, and low-brow humour.

The opening act quickly loses balance, Palmer poking his business into a murky plot, allowing himself to be led by the nose first by Anya, then Leo, and finally Ross. The action goes completely off the rails with the introduction of nut case General Midwinter, Ed Begley not just chewing the scenery but also vomiting on it with no hint of control. By this point Oskar Homolka's Colonel Stok is undressing in Palmer's hotel room and exiting through the balcony in search of cheap laughs. The plot finally consumes itself in the idiocy of Midwinter leading an army - assembled out of nowhere and packed into tanker trucks - in an absurd attempt to liberate Latvia.

As Stok, Leo, and Midwinter form of a trio of lunatics commanding the asylum, Palmer is mostly an observer and doofus victim primarily concerned with seducing Anya. Russell wastes scenic Nordic and Eastern European surroundings with his uncoordinated antics, and the main point of interest defaults to glossy scenes of large computer rooms representing the era's state of the science. But even the imbecilic title premise of a computer issuing orders and plotting wars is undermined by the ease with which Leo reprograms the machine to suit his purpose. As it turns out, a billion dollars does not buy much of a brain.

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