Friday, October 21, 2005


This month Billion Dollar Brain(1967), the third film in the Harry Palmer spy series, was finally released on DVD. I'd never seen it before, and had been bugging my video store guy about it for years. (Turns out the hold up was because the film originally contained Beatles music in one scene, and licensing the tune for video release was prohibitively expensive. So they eventually just took that brief scene out.)

Serious fans of the spy movie genre should be familiar with the Harry Palmer films. The first two, The Ipcress File(1965) and Funeral in Berlin(1966), are both good entries made great by Michael Caine's fully inhabiting the role of Palmer, a grouchy, super-intelligent bloke dragooned into the service because, well, he's just so damned good at the work. TIF and FIB both made head fakes toward the counterculture by positioning the surly, working-class Palmer as a counterpoint to the suave, upper-class James Bond (Harry Saltzman was a producer of both film series.) This website puts it beautifully: "When Bond was getting the girl, Palmer was filling out government expense forms in triplicate." Palmer's relationship to his superiors is not one of playful rebellion, as is Bond's, it's one of genuine disdain. He knows he's being sent out there as cannon fodder, but he'll be damned if he'll give them the satisfaction of him dying for his country.

Billion Dollar Brain takes Palmer's alienation and essentially builds a film around it, while still staying within the lines of the 60s spy movie. Directed by Ken Russell (his first feature film), it has an Alice in Wonderland quality, unfolding like a dream, with every event making you shake your head as you reconsider the previous scenes. Each doorway indicates a new reality, the minimally but beautifully designed sets manage to stay just this side of bizarre, and characters make strange little asides as they come and go. Oh, and there's a barbecue picnic in Texas that turns into a Christian-fascist rally. Through it all there's Palmer, looking entirely unimpressed, with little more than his cynicism as defense, quite aware that there's only so much he can do to change the course of events.

There's a certain psychedelic quality to all spy films, given that they deal to such a great extent with questions of identity and perception. Russell takes this to brilliant lengths in BDB, creating one of the most flat-out trippy films I've ever seen. Highly recommended, though you might want to watch the other two first.

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