Harry Palmer and General Midwinter

Billion Dollar Brain - 1968

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 panache 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, both of which were 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.

Opening sequence - 1968

This clip of the opening titles has two really strong elements - the immediacy of the score by Richard Rodney Bennett and the focus on computer readouts and lights flashing, emphasising the computer 'brain' at the heart of the movie.

Caine below zero - the making of the Billion Dollar Brain - 1968

Kees Stam's excellent Harry Palmer Movie Site hosts a rarely seen 'making of' short featuring Michael Caine talking about his third outing as Harry Palmer. The quality of the original film is not great, but it does encapsulate well how the film series had developed and become bigger in scope, for example including a major battle scene on the ice. The narrator says that "this is the coolest Michael Caine has ever been"!

All content (c) Rob Mallows 2010-2016 (unless otherwise stated)