Cast & Crew
Harry Palmer has quit the British Intelligence service to operate a private detective agency. British Intelligence head Colonel Ross tries to induce him to return to work, but Palmer refuses. Shortly thereafter Palmer gets an assignment to deliver some eggs to Finland. In Helsinki he meets Anya, who takes him to an old friend, ex-CIA agent Leo Newbegin, to collect his fee. Palmer is blackmailed by the British service into pretending to join Newbegin's organization, which is headed by a zealous anti-Communist, Texas billionaire General Midwinter. Palmer is trapped at the Latvian border and nearly killed by Anya, whereupon he learns that Midwinter is attempting to foment revolution in Soviet satellite countries before leading his own army in an attack on Russia--an attack planned by his billion-dollar computer. Newbegin, who has been doublecrossing Midwinter, escapes from Helsinki with Anya; she in turn doublecrosses Newbegin and hands him over to Palmer. Aware that the eggs are filled with a lethal virus, Anya flees with them to Russia, for which she has been working as a spy. Midwinter and his army advance toward Russia but sink through thin ice when Colonel Stok, head of the Russian secret service, dispatches several planes to drop a few well-placed bombs on the ice. Palmer, the only survivor, is rescued by Stok, an old friend of Palmer's; and Stok and Anya, satisfied at having thwarted Midwinter's plot, hand the eggs over to Palmer.
Richard Rodney Bennett
Billion Dollar Brain
Saltzman, who co-produced the James Bond film series with Albert R. Broccoli, wanted the Harry Palmer movies to serve as a more realistic and serious take on the spy genre with Palmer relying on his intelligence more often than weapons or his fists. The emphasis was on the often complex twists and turns of the plot and not the high-tech gadgetry, sexy female heroines or tongue-in-cheek one-liners that distinguished the Bond films. For Billion Dollar Brain, Saltzman wanted a fresh approach and that meant a new director (The Ipcress File was directed by Sidney J. Furie, Funeral in Berlin was directed by Guy Hamilton). Director Andre De Toth, who was serving as co-producer on the film, recalled in his autobiography Fragments, that the screenwriter "John [McGrath] had an idea about a director and had shown me some exceptional BBC films on composers (Elgar, Bartok, Delius) by a man I had never heard of - Ken Russell." Michael Caine also supported the choice having seen and liked Russell's film on Debussy. Saltzman had serious doubts, however, when he screened Russell's first theatrical feature French Dressing (1964), an unsuccessful slapstick comedy. Still, he went ahead with an offer that would allow Russell to film his dream project - a movie on Nijinsky - if he'd direct his Harry Palmer thriller first. It marked the beginning of a very stormy and turbulent relationship between the two men that lasted through the entire production of Billion Dollar Brain.
The first challenge was crafting an acceptable screenplay from Len Deighton's novel. Russell, working with scenarist John McGrath, recalled, "The book was totally illogical. The reasons people did things, went places and said things had no rationality whatsoever. There was a lot of business about infected eggs, for instance, that had nothing to do with anything...But John got down to the business of trying to insert some logic into the events while at the same time we'd throw in something that tickled our fancy. For instance we both liked Eisenstein so we put in a modern "Battle on the Ice." And the script gradually became more and more anti-American and pro-Russian, in that the film deals with American interference in affairs which are not its concern. In this case it's Latvia whose internal politics are interfered with, but for 'Latvia' one could easily read Vietnam. I think it was the first anti-American spy film ever and I'm told that many young people in America liked it for that reason, though it died the death in most places."
There were disagreements between Russell and Saltzman over the choice of cinematographer. Otto Heller, who had shot the two previous Palmer films (as well as Michael Powell's Peeping Tom  and Alfie), was on board again and Russell said, "He was a very old, tired man. I liked him very much. He'd done some good work, crude but gutsy. We went together on a scouting trip to Helsinki where we were going to shoot most of the action but he never got out of the car. He'd come out of a cat nap, look out the window at a location and say "No problem," then go off to sleep again. It was all a bit creepy..." The production manager insisted that Heller have a physical when he returned to London and "he had everything possible wrong with him: his liver, kidneys, spleen, heart, lungs - the lot," Russell said. "He didn't realise how sick he was, but in fact he was dying, and though he actually managed to hang on until 1970 he was a write-off for this film." Saltzman replaced him with Robert Krasker, the Oscar®-winning cinematographer of The Third Man (1949) but his working methods and aesthetics clashed with Russell who was looking for a documentary type of cameraman who could capture the frozen Baltic environment. Krasker quickly withdrew from the project, making Saltzman furious at Russell: "Best cameraman in the world not good enough for you, huh? What're we gonna do now? We've not making Nanook of the North, y'know." Russell was eventually able to convince him that the ideal man for the job was the relatively unknown Billy Williams, after screening some of his television work for Saltzman. Williams would go on to shoot Russell's Women in Love (1969), The Wind and the Lion (1975), On Golden Pond (1981) and Gandhi (1982).
Saltzman was a big advocate of shooting movies on location but Helsinki in the dead of winter proved to be a major challenge and not a pleasant experience for either the cast or crew. Caine, in his autobiography, recalled the miserable working conditions: "The cold in Finland was difficult to understand. If you did not wear a hat you got a splitting headache as your brain started to freeze, and the sea, which is after all a moving body of salt water, froze to depths of eight to ten feet. In the winter they run roads for ordinary traffic straight across the bay on which Helsinki stands, like a free bridge."
The plan was to shoot the outdoor sequences on the ice and snow first before the Spring thaw which usually began around March 15th and then the interior scenes at Pinewood Studios in England. However, the thaw began three weeks earlier than expected and threw everyone into a panic. Russell said, "We drove out to do our scenes on the ice and the wheels of the vehicles sank up to the axle hubs. Ships were also passing us on either side, which was a bit unnerving. Harry flew out one day to see how we were getting on and drove out to the location. "All this slush!" he said. "Can't you shoot it someplace else?" "But Harry" I said "The scene is set on the sea. We need this vast expanse." "The sea! You mean we're on the sea?" He didn't realise he was out on the ice with three thousand fathoms of Baltic Ocean at fifty degrees below beneath his feet. "Get out!" I got out and he drove back to Helsinki as fast as he could. We were walking about up to our ankles in slush, and at the end the ice did start to crack up. Michael Caine, to his credit, was jumping from ice floe to ice floe as the ice melted around us. The Coast Guard came down and said "If you're not done by tomorrow, forget it." As he left he said "Drive back with your doors open." "Why?" "Well, if your car sinks through the ice you might be able to get out." We just did it. The next day would have been hopeless."
The climactic battle on the ice sequence was shot back at Pinewood studios but Russell rejected the art director's decision to use radio-controlled toy models for the various vehicles. "It was actually cheaper in the long run to shoot the whole thing with real vehicles on a deserted airfield which we coated in salt," Russell said, "and it looked more real; you can't have men jumping out of model trucks. We built ramps around the tank and ran real lorries down into the water which was filled with pieces of polystyrene ice. I think it worked very well."
After the film wrapped, a London premiere was arranged with Saltzman and Russell in attendance. It was a complete disaster with reels shown out of order and the Cinemascope framing completely ruined by an incompetent projectionist. "It was the last time I went to a premiere," Russell said, "and from then on, whenever one of my films is being shown, I put the whole theatre staff through a terrible drilling. I also get all the sound and projection equipment overhauled, but even then it doesn't always work."
Although United Artists was pleased with the final result, Billion Dollar Brain didn't fare any better with the public or critics in America than it did in Europe. The Variety critic wrote "It doesn't matter so much that the storyline offends belief - so do the Bond gambols - but it is deployed by director Ken Russell with such abrupt speed that it doesn't make immediate sense in its own frivolous terms." Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun-Times agreed, writing, that Billion Dollar Brain "is a spy movie that commits the unforgivable sin of losing track of its plot. How can you take it seriously when the spy's mission is never made clear?"
Billion Dollar Brain enjoys a much better reputation today and is often considered the liveliest and most stylish entry in the Harry Palmer series. Even Ken Russell has changed his original negative assessment of it. "Making the film was such a struggle and its reception so dispiriting that for years after I automatically ran it down to everyone. But when it was revived on television recently I saw it again and was very agreeably surprised. It's totally incomprehensible, of course, but quite stunning in parts - particularly the Midwinter sections. I also liked the Russian general's speech about Lenin in the hotel bedroom. The film must be just about the only one of its kind ever to treat a totally commercial subject in that way. I could kick myself for apologising for it all these years."
Some additional trivia on Billion Dollar Brain: It was the last film for French actress Francoise Dorleac, sister of Catherine Deneuve. She was killed in a car accident shortly after completing the picture.
Karl Malden became a familiar spokesman for American Express in TV commercials indirectly due to this film. "...when I was making Billion Dollar Brain in London...my hotel room had been burglarized. The thief had indeed taken every penny of cash but had not touched the travelers' checks," Malden recounted in his autobiography. "Maybe I was just talking myself into it, but this appeared to be a product and a service I could stand behind."
Producer: Harry Saltzman, Andre De Toth
Director: Ken Russell
Screenplay: John McGrath; Len Deighton (novel Billion Dollar Brain)
Cinematography: Billy Williams
Art Direction: Bert Davey
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Film Editing: Alan Osbiston
Cast: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer), Karl Malden (Leo Newbigen), Ed Begley (General Midwinter), Oscar Homolka (Colonel Stok), Francoise Dorleac (Anya), Guy Doleman (Colonel Ross), Vladek Sheybal (Dr. Eiwort), Milo Sperber (Basil).
by Jeff Stafford
What's It All About? by Michael Caine (Ballantine Books)
An Appalling Talent: Ken Russell by John Baxter (Michael Joseph)
Fragments: Portraits from the Inside by Andre de Toth (Faber and Faber)
When Do I Start?: A Memoir by Karl Malden (Simon & Schuster)
Billion Dollar Brain
Billion Dollar Brain - Ken Russell's Unconventional 1967 Spy Thriller on DVD
By way of legendary texts, such as those written by Ian Fleming, popular culture tells us that spies are sophisticated gentlemen who through their prowess with weapons and women are able to routinely save the world from imminent danger. In reality a less sensationalized representation of the "spy game" and the key figures involved probably remains truer to form, as the life of a field agent certainly involves heightened levels of risk, especially when compared to the sheltered existence one experiences while working within the cubicle maze of corporate America. But let's be honest - even a spy punches the proverbial time clock. In other words, a job is a job and nowhere can viewers witness this journeyman approach to the world of the spy more precisely played than in the Harry Palmer series starring Michael Caine.
Based on the works of Len Deighton, the Harry Palmer series illustrates the struggles inherently present within the intelligence profession and does so from a rather frank point of view. Complete with lovingly lethal femme fatales and diabolical madmen aspiring toward world domination, Harry Palmer risks life and limb while coping with more mundane issues such the inevitable language barrier faced by English speaking agents in far off countries. Therefore, with the recent release of Billion Dollar Brain (1967), American viewers are once again privy to this less glamorous side of secret government agents.
The third installment in the Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain relies on a conventional "Cold War" narrative while incorporating inventive twists and turns that correspond to today's trepidations about terrorism and homeland security. Featuring the prolific Michael Caine as the central protagonist Harry Palmer, viewers quickly learn of the reluctant nature with which this character approaches his responsibilities as an appointed agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. As a means of demonstrating this point the film opens in the office of detective for hire, Harry Palmer. That's correct; Palmer resigned from his commitments to the crown and dabbled in the not so lucrative career of private eye, a drastic measure that undoubtedly goes against the double oh doctrine of James Bond. Regardless, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) hopes to convince Palmer to return to his duties for an upcoming mission even if this means luring him by way of a modest raise.
Dissuaded little by Colonel Ross's recruitment speech, Palmer opts to stay conveniently self-employed. Upon the Colonel's dejected departure Palmer immediately receives a strange telephone call from an anonymous electronic client who supplies Palmer with facts and funds, as our sleuth sets this episode in motion. The arrangements call for Palmer to acquire a thermos containing several eggs injected with biological weapons and to deliver this inconspicuous vessel to Helsinki, Finland. Once in Finland, Palmer rendezvous with Anya (Francoise Dorleac) and an old acquaintance Leo Newbegin (Karl Malden). Leo pays Palmer for his services and offers him gainful employment for a project that "sounds too good to be true." Yet as a merger mercenary Palmer is forced to accept Leo's offer, but only after Colonel Ross abducts Harry and reinstates his spy status by way of basic blackmail. So, Palmer begrudgingly returns to Leo as an undercover agent with orders to retrieve information about the intended use of the contaminated eggs. In making the obligatory inquires, Palmer soon learns that Leo, and perhaps Anya, work for a paramilitary organization funded by a fanatical freedom fighter, General Midwinter (Ed Begley) of Texas.
As Midwinter's agents in Eastern Europe Leo, Harry, and Anya follow the orders supplied to them via an intricate network of computers (dated devices by today's standards each the size of a compact car that just so happen to operate on the old punch card system that predated floppy disks). Midwinter's mammoth computer network, the so-called Billion Dollar Brain, has orchestrated a detailed plan to overthrow the governing Communist body in the Baltic State of Latvia. Palmer learns of the preparations playing out in Finland and follows the trail back to Midwinter's underground lair in Texas (a prerequisite of any evil genius). There he meets the general who predictably explains the entire plan of attack as part of a boisterous tirade that would make even Napoleon Bonaparte blush. The figure of Midwinter personifies the American policies against the spread of Communism across Southeast Asia in the late 1960's, although in a blatantly exaggerated form. Modern viewers may also find a correlation to more recent issues abroad, especially in light of powerful leaders from the Lone Star state, but I will leave such a politicized interpretation up to you the viewer. In any case, despite your affiliations, Midwinter's measures clearly seem extreme and his intentions are anything but discreet. In fact even the powers that be back in Moscow seem aware of what Midwinter has in mind. Here, Palmer's associations within the spy community come into play as his Communist counterpart, Colonel Stock (Oscar Homoloka) plans to eliminate the potential threat posed by Midwinter's organization. As the story concludes betrayal and bloodshed occur on a massive scale as Harry finds himself in the middle of a cathartic catastrophe. In the end the spy plays his part and restores order, just another day at the office for our hero, Harry Palmer.
Directed by Ken Russell, the filmmaker responsible for such cult classics as Tommy (1975) and The Lair of the White Worm (1988), Billion Dollar Brain is oddly enough the only installment of the Harry Palmer series currently available on home video here in the United States. The precursors, The Ipcress File (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966), are both available on Region 1 DVD in Canada, but not in our domestic market. Caine would also later return to the series in the late 1990's when he starred in Bullet to Beijing (1995) and Midnight in Saint Petersburg (1998), but here again these videos are only available to our northern neighbors. Therefore as the sole representative of the series here in the United States viewers may unfortunately not be familiar with Caine in this recurring role. With that said the introduction of Billion Dollar Brain seems rather abrupt, as the narrative assumes the viewer possesses knowledge of this previously developed character. Other than this minor complaint, spy film aficionados and films buffs at large should find this film quite intriguing.
From an emphasis on computer technology (machines actually donated to the production by Honeywell International) to the use of unusual locales such as the striking snow covered cities of Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, the merits of Billion Dollar Brain stretch beyond the scope of a formulaic spy film. With an unpredictable story and effective performances by the cast/crew, this film paints an interesting picture of an American terrorist threat. The villain in this film remains uniquely American and the viewer's sympathies lie with a British agent attempting to prevent an attack on a Soviet Republic. By slightly altering the established rules of the genre, Billion Dollar Brain offers audiences a global perspective, as a rogue American operation toys with the delicate balance of world peace. For this fact alone one cannot help but commend the filmmakers responsible for this edition of the Harry Palmer series. A job well done by all parties involved, with perhaps one notable exception, MGM Home Video. Viewers will find that the DVD offers little in the way of extras (only subtitle language and upcoming previews appear as menu options), but Billion Dollar Brain is a film that can certainly stand alone. Although this series of films may be dwarfed by the juggernaut James Bond, Harry Palmer as he appears in Billion Dollar Brain certainly deserves mention in the same breath. These colleagues in the field should therefore be colleagues in your film library.
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by Christian Pierce
Billion Dollar Brain - Ken Russell's Unconventional 1967 Spy Thriller on DVD
What does it do, tell fortunes?- Harry Palmer
It *makes* fortunes: ours! Just a little toy, but it puts the MI5 and the CIA back into the Stone Age.- Leo Newbigen
No, you don't understand the kind of love I have for this great country of ours. Love's not built that way, my way, any more. These days love is marriage, and the compensation is alimony; love these days is bravery under fire, and the compensation is medals; love is a donation of party funds, and the compensation is a political plum; love is some lady you left back in St. Louis, or a fast haul in the back seat of an automobile. My love is nothing like that. My love is this great company of brave young men, who are proud to make their country strong!- General Midwinter
He was a very stupid man. A patriot, of course... very brave... During a war, such men earn medals, win victories... we are proud of them. But at such a time as now, a little bit stupid.- Colonel Stok
They think the Latvians on the verge of overthrowing their tyrannical overlords. Heh heh. They think that people walking in the street out there are dreaming of the moment when they can become capitalist serfs again. They think we all lie awake dreaming of going to America. They think they can distribute pamphlets and gold, and a vast monarchist army will materialize overnight.- Colonel Stok
OK, Leo, what's the catch?- Harry Palmer
There's no catch.- Leo Newbigen
Then who gets killed?- Harry Palmer
Nobody gets killed.- Leo Newbigen
There's no catch, and nobody gets killed? I'd still like to know more about it, Leo.- Harry Palmer
'Caine, Michael' performed most of his own stunts. During the final ice floe scene, he almost slipped and fell into freezing water.
This was the third Harry Palmer film, after Ipcress File, The (1965) and Funeral in Berlin (1966). Caine had originally signed a five-picture deal, but when he was reluctant to return to the role, producer Harry Saltzman let him out of the contract. Much later, though, he did make two more Harry Palmer films: _Bullet to Beijing (1995)_ and _Midnight in St. Petersburg (1995)_ .
Filmed on location in Helsinki and Latvia. Opened in London in November 1967 at 111 min. This is the third in a series of films based on the Harry Palmer character.
Released in United States Winter December 20, 1967
Third in a series that began with "The Ipcress File".
Released in United States Winter December 20, 1967