Skip to main content

In England, Colonel, the historic mission of the proletariat consists almost entirely of momentary interest.

Billion Dollar Brain
(1967)

(SPOILERS) A reluctant Ken Russell (his second feature, and helming under protest, so he said) at least ensures this final (well, until the ‘90s, if we really mustgo there) looks good. Crucially, however, it’s all but devoid of internal tension, except momentarily when Harry experiences an altercation or two with a couple of heavies. Which invariably leads to a ream of exposition from his captor; this is about as far from an espionage investigation or mystery begging to be solved as it gets, and while the Bond comparisons batted its way are slightly unfair, Billion Dollar Brain does support a similarly incidental approach to plotting.

The negligible sense of threat in Billion Dollar Brain means those Harry encounters are largely affable or persuadable after the initial introductions, as he casually traipses through snow from side to side or visits masterminds’ lairs. That and the Maurice Binder-meets-Austin Powers, Bond-esque title sequence add to a vague sense of hapless spoofery, although not in the way that would later inspire such twisted delights in Diamonds are Forever.

Ross: Do you get all your equipment from Kelloggs?

It’s a shame, as it begins so well, with the underused Guy Doleman as Colonel Ross dropping in unannounced of the now absconded Palmer (he’s become a detective) and trying to persuade him to return to the fold. That Harry’s almost immediately off on a spy mission, at the behest of the computer of the title/ old chum Leo (Karl Malden, irrepressible but decidedly small-time and unmenacing), who is in turn aided/being manipulated by out-of-his-league Anya (Françoise Dorléac in her final role; she died in a car wreck before filming was completed).

The MacGuffin is more diverting than Funeral in Berlin’s – eggs carrying deadly virus(es) stolen from Porton Down (“How are you going to have them, Leo? Scrambled or fried?”) – but such a potentially unnerving scenario is left rather limp. Harry travels from Helsinki to Latvia (cue some whacky rebels – everyone’s whacky in this), gets into scrapes and meets up with Colonel Stok (Oskar Homolka) again, encounters various threats and double-crosses from Leo and Anya, and is guest of Ed Begley’s lunatic oil tycoon General Midwinter in Texas, who plans to bring down the Commies with the aid of his computers and the viruses.

Midwinter: Do you like the sound of gunfire? Me, I love it.

Unfortunately, despite the travelogue nature of the movie, Harry’s rendered largely passive and reactive, particularly so during the much-cited Eisenstein-inspired ice-breaking climax. The picture briefly becomes invested during his stay at Midwinter’s base, with Palmer under pressure and talking for his life (Ken also engineers a nice speechifying scene entirely drowned out by the score).

In outline, Billion Dollar Brain follows Len Deighton’s novel fairly closely, so one might lay the blame at his door, but the reality is that, while on paper the idea of Ken Russell making a spy movie is appealingly off-the-wall, the material suffers from his being unable to disguise his disinterest in the plot and characters. Ken Adam suggested it was “the wrong type of movie for Ken” while Pauline Kael was of the view that “he hurled the audience from one crisis to the next, and things went by so fast that the story got befuddled and nothing seemed to be happening”. There’s a vague straining towards an eccentric, Strangelovian vibe (Begley’s general, who hasn't left Texas in twenty-five years owing to it having "the only truly wholesome air in the world" has a touch of Jack D Ripper about him), but it’s mostly heavy handed rather than sharp.

One can only assume the audience agreed; Billion Dollar Brain’s box office performance was underwhelming, which put the kibosh on planned fourth instalment Horse Under Water (actually the second Palmer novel). Caine’s fond of citing Harry Salzman’s generosity in releasing him from his seven-year contract, but it may have been partly fuelled by the practicality of his star’s vehicle having run out of steam. Caine himself suggested he would have liked to make An Expensive Place to Die, the fifth in Deighton’s “unnamed hero” series, but when he returned in that pair of blighted ‘90s pictures, Deighton’s novels were nowhere in sight.





Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.