Billion Dollar Brain - 1968

Harry Palmer movies

The plot

Harry Palmer of W.O.O.C.(P). has become a none-too-successful private detective. He receives a package of money which is followed by a mechanical taped voice that gives him his instructions over the phone.

He accepts the assignment and unkowingly enters the world of a Texas billionaire who thinks he can bring about a popular uprising in the Baltic republics in the Soviet Union with the help of a highly sophisticated computer managing a team of foreign agents.

In Finland he encounters his old acquaintance Leo Newbiggin and establishes that the package contains virus-filled eggs that have been stolen from the British government's research facility at Porton Down.

Later, he is coerced into working once more for Colonel Ross and the British secret service. He becomes a member of the 'Crusade for Freedom' organisation – an ultra-right-wing group led by maniacal oil-billionaire General Midwinter – and is charged with thwarting its planned attempt at liberating Latvia from Soviet domination, which would cause a worldwide conflict; this also brings him into conflict with his old friend Newbegin.

Harry must also recover the stolen virus for the British. At times, Palmer is very un-Bond like in his approach to this mission; he is reliant on help from Colonel Stok; he gets captured; he gets framed by Ross and is forced to complete the mission to capture the eggs; and he relies on an old friend Newbegin, who demonstrates he is only out for himself.

Film notes

Michael Caine was by this point apparently sick of playing the scruffy spy Harry Palmer and worried about type-casting; as a result, he ducked out of his five-film contract after this memorably bizarre third instalment, which has its action-packed moments but lacks the style of the first two movies.

Nevertheless, the location shooting in Finland is spectacular and the battle on the ice as Midwinter's troops race to Latvia is pretty spectacular. What it lacks, maybe, is the cockney charm of London or the Cold War vitality of Berlin integral to the two earlier films.

The musical score offers a relentless, harsh mood (like the Baltic weather), with a focus on brass and percussion, including three pianos. The score is constantly varying the main theme.

The scene on the ice, between the two armies is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky film of 1938, as the armies converge on the frozen sea.

The computer consoles in the film are Honeywell 200 mainframe consoles.

32 seconds were cut from the movie as there was a scene in which a Beatles song was playing in the background in Finland. The Beatles denied the producers the right to use the song in the movie, hence cuts had to be made.

Read an excellent reassessment by Mark Dellar of Billion Dollar Brain on the Bright Lights website.

The superb Harry Palmer Movie Site has found a rare 'making of' film from the 1960s in which Michael Caine talks about his third outing as the eponymous spy. The film is hosted on YouTube.

Film notes

Director: Ken Russell (UK)
Producer: Harry Saltzmann
Screenplay: John McGrath
Starring: Michael Caine (Harry Palmer); Karl Malden (Leo Newbegin); Oscar Homolka (Col. Stok); Ed Begley (Gen. Midwinter); Guy Doleman (Col. Ross); Françoise Doreléac (Anya).
Music: Richard Rodney Bennett
Released/broadcast: 21 January 1968 (UK)