Sunday, August 28, 2011

Billion Dollar Brain

I'm a pretty huge James Bond fan.  It all stems from an overnight hospital stay I had as a teenager that happened to coincide with a James Bond marathon on TV; since then, I have seen every Bond at least four times.  This love of James Bond has transferred into a love for the spy genre, both in books and on film.  John Le Carre and Robert Ludlum (in my mind) provide the same level of enjoyment as Derek Flint and Peter Joshua (AKA Alexander Dyle, AKA Adam Canfield, AKA Brian Cruikshank).  Let's just say that I can appreciate spy movies that are serious, campy, or just plain fun.  With that in mind, you might understand my shock when I learned that Michael Caine --- a man who will act in almost anything you ask him to --- starred in a pentalogy (!) of spy movies that I had never heard of.  Even more surprising to me was that most of these films were contemporary to the Sean Connery Bond movies.  Am I just culturally ignorant?  Possibly.  Or is the Harry Palmer spy trilogy just not good enough to have a legacy?
Answer me, you cocky Cockney bastard!

Billion Dollar Brain begins with Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) working as a private detective instead of On Her Majesty's Secret Service.  That doesn't last long, though.  Harry receives a mysterious job from a robotic-sounding voice over the phone; he is to take a package to a certain person in Helsinki, Finland.  Coincidentally, my wife (Wifey Vs. Movies, as her family refers to her) once spent a year in Helsinki, but somehow missed Michael Caine.  Anyway, Palmer takes the job, but it's not just a simple delivery.  No, in Helsinki, he meets a beautiful and cryptic Russian babe (Francoise Dorleac) who guides him to his next destination.
Such are the perils of espionage

Along the way, MI5 show up and tell Harry that he needs to pretend to be a double agent to foil the plans of whoever he was hired by.  It turns out that Palmer's contact is an old American spy friend, Leo (Karl Malden).  Like Harry, Leo has quit the employ of his country and is enjoying free enterprise.  The big difference between them is that Leo takes his orders from a super-smart computer, which tells him who to hire for what job, who lives and who dies.
Yeah, I'd take my glasses off, too, in the company of naked Karl Malden
It also turns out that Harry's delivery package is a box of eggs, which carry a ridiculously deadly disease inside them.  Why eggs?  Why not?  But why is Leo taking orders from a machine?  Well, it seems that Leo is working for a crazy Texas billionaire (Ed Begley) who wants to fight Communism.  Billionaires are the most likely people to build billion-dollar computers, so there's you answer.  Can Harry prevent World War III?  Maybe, but the story gets much more convoluted than you might expect.

As far as the acting goes, Billion Dollar Brain is decent.  I was surprised at how charmless the Harry Palmer character was; well, he had a British accent (which goes a long way in America), but the character was fairly blank in this film.  I don't blame Michael Caine for this, because I believe he did a good job given his role, but the script just didn't make Harry very likable.  Karl Malden did a solid job as the conniving, yet workmanlike Leo.  Toward the end, his character got kind of silly, but I blame the script more than Malden here.  Ed Begley was hilariously over the top as the crazy Texan.  If there was a couch in a scene, you can assume he chewed it apart.  While his character was utterly ridiculous, he provided a much-needed jolt in the arm for the film and helped make the final third of the movie silly, but enjoyable.  As for Francoise Dorleac, she's reeeel purrty.  Aside from that...well, she's purrty.
"Ridiculous?!?  I'll 'ridiculous' you...!"

So, how about the direction?  Well, this is definitely better than the last Ken Russell film I watched.  To be fair, though, almost anything is better than the film adaptation of Tommy.  Honestly, I wasn't very impressed with Russell's work here.  He did a decent enough job with the actors, but the story is pretty thin and his editing doesn't make it any easier to understand.  This is a story of double- and triple-crosses, but Russell never really goes very deep into the tension that would normally accompany deep-cover operations.  Instead, he plays up the silliness of Ed Begley.  He does that very well, but it's at odds with the tone of the rest of the film.  Billion Dollar Brain is simply an example of an under-directed film.
"Okay, Michael...your motivation's cold.  Action!"

Is there anything as sad as a spy movie that doesn't have a coherent plot?  Well, yes, if you want to get all "big picture" on me, but in terms of spy movies, the answer is "no."  Harry Palmer doesn't know exactly what he's supposed to be doing for a decent portion of this film, which makes it awfully difficult for the audience to follow his logic.  Harry's working as a double agent for somebody who is double-crossing a madman, while there is another double-agent involved...and several supporting characters die for little or no reason.  I might accept the random plot holes and ridiculousness if the main character's charisma was enough to help this movie coast to the finish, but Harry Palmer is not very impressive in this film.  Aside from Caine's Cockney accent, Palmer doesn't have much personality.  While this may be the third movie in the series, the inherent coolness of Harry Palmer must be established early and often to forgive story weaknesses of this magnitude.  Billion Dollar Brain does not do that.

That is not to say that Billion Dollar Brain is worthless.  Even a script-hampered Michael Caine can be entertaining, and he goes through enough of the motions to make this film seem like more of an adventure than it really is.  In fact, the final third of the film almost serves as a template for the silliness that the Roger Moore Bonds would become infamous for.  This isn't a good spy movie, or even a good regular movie.  It is mildly entertaining, though, and probably better than the third installment of most film series. 


  1. Are you indeed culturally ignorant?

    It is worth your consideration.

    For example, when someone suggests a film to you, is your 1st response to ask "Is it in black-and-white?"

    Thank you for the excellent photos!

    1. Actually, my first question is usually "Is it on Netflix?"