Michael Caine's first Harry Palmer film, "The Ipcress File", seems to have been deliberately designed to present a quite different picture of life in the British Secret Service to that shown in the James Bond films. Whereas Bond is a glamorous figure who lives a life of luxury, travels to exotic locations, drives expensive cars and seduces a succession of glamorous women, Palmer earns an average wage, lives in a seedy and down-market flat, shops at his local supermarket, drives a Ford Zephyr rather than an Aston Martin and never travels outside London where he is mostly employed in dull, bureaucratic work.
I have never seen the second Palmer film, "Funeral in Berlin", but the third, "Billion Dollar Brain", is much closer to the Bond-type spy movie than is "The Ipcress File". Palmer travels to exotic foreign destinations (Finland and Latvia) and meets (and beds) a beautiful young woman who might just be a double agent. (The girl, Anya, was played by Francoise Dorleac in her last film before her tragic death). The most Bond-like element in the film is the villain, General Midwinter, a Texan oil millionaire who, with his grandiose schemes and his own private army, bears a close resemblance to some of Ian Fleming's characters such as Goldfinger or Stromberg.
When the film begins, Palmer has left MI5 and is working as a freelance private investigator. An apparently routine commission to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki leads to his becoming embroiled with Midwinter, a far-right fanatic who dreams of overthrowing world Communism and has formed his own Crusade for Freedom, controlled by a powerful computer, the "Brain" of the title. (In 1967 it presumably looked very state-of-the-art, but today, with its reel-to-reel tapes and punch cards, it looks ludicrously dated. Strange to think that his billion dollars probably purchased Midwinter something with rather less calculating power than today's £500 laptops). The Brain has calculated (on the basis of false information fed in by a corrupt agent who has been syphoning off Midwinter's funds) that an anti-Soviet uprising is about to occur in Latvia, and Midwinter is resolved to send his private army to intervene.
Some people have seen parallels with George W Bush, but in 1967 there was another Texan in the White House, a man who had led America into a war even bloodier and even less popular than Iraq, and the character of Midwinter was doubtless intended to reflect the view that President Johnson was a dangerous warmonger. As, by implication, were those Americans who had been stupid enough to put him into the White House. (In the 1960s the European Left made little distinction between Republicans and Democrats, who were seen as two sides of the same coin). The hero of the film, apart from Palmer, is the Soviet commander Colonel Stok, desperately trying to prevent Midwinter from setting off World War III. Stok is played by Oskar Homolka who was presumably cast because of his strong resemblance to the then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
This world view- Americans are mad and bad, the Soviets are decent and civilised, and anyone who opposes Communism or Russian domination of Eastern Europe must be a Neo-Nazi- was an unusual one to find in a Cold War thriller, but it was one that was fairly common in left-wing circles in Europe during the sixties, even though the Soviets had plenty of self-righteous lunatics of their own, many of them in positions of high authority. Replace the word "Communism" in Midwinter's speeches with "Capitalism" and he begins to sound like Brezhnev's ranting, shoe-banging predecessor Nikita Khrushchev. Any hopes that Brezhnev would prove to be more liberal, however, were to be dashed the year after the film was made when he ordered the Red Army to crush the pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. This sort of pro-Soviet viewpoint looks very outdated today, discredited by the events of the late eighties and early nineties when the peoples of Eastern Europe proved that they did indeed prefer democracy to the Communist system. We can be thankful that at the time of these events the Soviet Union was led by the only real statesman it ever produced, Mikhail Gorbachev. Had the likes of Brezhnev and Stok still been in charge they would have turned half a continent into a bloodbath in an attempt to maintain Soviet power by force of arms.
The film was directed by Ken Russell, not a name normally associated with spy movies. This was, however, only his second feature film (in the sixties he was much better known for his work on television) and he apparently made it reluctantly, being obliged to do so for contractual reasons. It is, however, obvious that he already had ambitions to be more than the director of run-of-the-mill thrillers, because his style already shows the hallmarks of the auteur director he was to become in the following decade- unusual camera angles especially on close-ups, shots using a moving camera, moody, atmospheric photography of the wintry, snow-bound Finnish landscape. The battle on the ice is a direct Eisenstein reference. This makes the film quite attractive visually, and some of the acting is good. Caine is too downbeat- he clearly failed to realise that this style of film called for a different style of acting from "The Ipcress File"- but Karl Malden is good as the cynical, amoral Leo Newbigen, and Ed Begley makes the best Bond villain not actually found in a Bond movie. Nevertheless, the film must lose at least one star for its objectionable politics. 5/10
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