Monday, July 19, 2021

Michael Caine Meets a Billion Dollar Brain

Michael Caine as Harry Palmer.
It was assuredly no easy task to follow in the footsteps of two of the best spy thrillers of the 1960s: The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. So, one must cut a little slack for Billion Dollar Brain (1967), Michael Caine’s third outing as thief-turned-spy Harry Palmer. 

Since we last saw Palmer, he has become a low-rent private eye working out of a dimly-lit office filled with half-empty food containers. He turns down a offer to spy again for his former boss, Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman), and accepts a job from a computerized voice on the phone. His assignment is to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki. Palmer learns that his cargo consists of six eggs containing a deadly virus. The recipient is an old Palmer associate named Leo (Karl Malden), who works for a Texas billionaire intent on ending the spread of Communism.

Karl Malden as Leo.
It's a promising opening, but the plot soon goes off the rails with a detour to Latvia, a trip to Texas to see a giant computer, and a brief climatic confrontation on the frozen Baltic Sea. The film's biggest mistake, though, is in relegating Palmer to a pawn in these shenanigans. Part of the fun of the earlier Palmer pictures was that his foes constantly underestimated the intelligent, if reluctant, spy. No one manages to manipulate Palmer in Billion Dollar Brain (unless he wants to be by a beautiful Russian agent). However, he has little impact on what happens in the story.

As Palmer's double-crossing one-time friend, Karl Malden looks lost in a poorly-written role. It's hard to believe that his over-eager, seemingly desperate former CIA agent could survive so long in the espionage business. Malden, an exceptional actor in the right part, was prone to occasional bouts of ham (see also Parrish) and that's sadly the case in Billion Dollar Brain.

 Françoise Dorléac as Anya.
His castmates have little to do, with Françoise Dorléac (Catherine Deneuve's sister) being wasted in an under-developed part. (Alas, that was a problem with many of the male-driven spy thrillers of the decade.) At least, Oskar Homolka has a grand time reprising his Russian army general from Funeral in Berlin in a couple of scenes with Caine. Also, look quickly and you may spot future film stars Donald Sutherland as a computer technician and Susan George as a young girl on a train that interacts with Palmer.

It's interesting to note that Billion Dollar Brain was directed by the frequently flamboyant Ken Russell. At that time in his career, Russell was primarily a television director who wanted to get established in films. Thus, Billion Dollar Brain was basically a "for hire" assignment and, as a result, doesn't bear his usual trademarks. To his credit, Russell makes good use of his outdoor locations shot in Finland and he keeps the plot moving along at a reasonable pace.

Billion Dollar Brain isn't a disaster, but it's a horrible letdown from Caine's two previous Palmer movies. If you enjoyed those, you should probably seek out Billion Dollar Brain so you can complete the original Palmer trilogy. Otherwise, there are better ways to spend your time.

5 comments:

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