3 June 2004 | LewisJForce
"Now is the winter of our discontent..."
For roughly the first twenty five minutes of it's running time, "Billion Dollar Brain" looks like it's shaping up to be something very good indeed. And then, slowly but surely, the whole thing unravels. By the time a further hour or so has elapsed, neither you nor Harry Palmer know nor particularly care what the hell is going on. The blame for this lies firmly at the door of director Ken Russell.
When we first reacquaint ourselves with Caine's coolly amused hero, he is operating as a private eye from a seedy, rundown office in Central London. And living almost exclusively on corn flakes. His superior, Colonel Ross (played once more by the wonderful Guy Doleman), wants him back in the service. Harry's not interested, but a little persuasion and blackmail ensures that he's soon off to Finland to deliver a thermosflask to a mysterious professor. Here he encounters the spectacularly sexy Francoise Dorleac and her highly unlikely lover, a lucky old sod played by Karl Malden.
People turn up dead, and triple-cross follows double-cross. But after a while it becomes pretty obvious that all of the complex subterfuge is merely an attempt to mask a rather run-of-the-mill 'madman takes over the world' plot.
Such is the stuff of every Bond picture, and it's a big disappointment after the relatively believable milieus of the first two Palmer flicks. The major problem, though, is that the director's hand is so uncertain, and his pacing so uneven, that we are never sure exactly what kind of film we are watching. Russell mixes the starkly beautiful mise en scene and ready cynicism of a 'realistic' cold war drama with the pop-art excesses of a Broccoli fantasy, but the cake doesn't rise. Heavy-handed attempts at political satire just make the warmed-over fare even more inedible.
There are compensations: Russell knows how to frame a shot, and Billy Williams' cinematography is often extremely beautiful (especially when shooting the ill-fated Dorleac). All of the main performers are charismatic and Richard Rodney Bennett turns in an atmospheric score. The spookily evocative theremin-like sound is created using an ancient French keyboard instrument, the ondes martinot.
In the draggy latter-half, a couple of sequences manage to pique the interest, especially the superbly staged 'Alexander Nevsky' parody, framed by the surreal contrasts of blinding white ice and pitch black sky. There is also an eerie, darkly comic sequence in which Harry awakes in a bathtub full of dead bodies, unsure of what exactly is happening. Unfortunately, all of the surrounding guff only serves to dull their impact.
Amuse yourself in the tedious stretches by looking out for blink-and-you'll-miss-em spots by Susan George and Donald Sutherland. Caine's brother Stanley also appears as the postman in the opening scene.