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Billion Dollar BrainBillion Dollar Brain on DVD

Michael Caine returns as low budget (and low motivation) spy Harry Palmer.

This cold war tale is directed by Ken Russell, a fact that surprised us when we read the credits on the DVD’s box. But he does a good job here, his flamboyance in check a tad and what is on display actually works for the film – which is a pretty unbelievable yarn anyway.

It’s also an opportunity for the movie biz to get in some America bashing before it was standard operating procedure, thanks to its portrayal of the super villain as a whacked out Texas oil magnate so obsessed with wiping out communism that he’s funding his own insurrection in the Baltics.

But of course we don’t know about that at the beginning – and we apologize for any spoiling we may have just done.

No, at rise we see former secret agent Harry Palmer working (apparently with little success) as a private investigator when he’s forced back into the spy business. Or at least they try forcing him into the spy biz, but fortunately he gets a private eye gig before he has to report and this takes him to Finland, where he runs into an old buddy (Karl Malden), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse.

But Palmer can’t get away from the rest of his past, either. The Brits and the Soviets both show up with info that Palmer’s buddy and his organization are a bunch of low life crazies (as opposed to the gentle and kind Soviets, we suppose) and convince him to become a mole to help end the threat.

And that’s all we’re going to do to spoil the plot for you.

Billion Dollar Brain (the title refers to a 1960’s vintage supercomputer and its price tag) is the weaker of the two Harry Palmer movies we’ve viewed (Funeral in Berlin was the first sequel to The Ipcress File, which we haven’t seen) and is generally considered to be the weakest of the three. It’s big and brash, with good production values and performances, but it’s so over the top it brings to mind the deterioration of the Bond movies after they started getting silly.

But it’s worth watching, even as frustrating as its portrayal of Americans, especially Texans, and Soviets is.

Caine is cool as a cucumber, even when slogging through snowbanks. His Palmer is an interesting counterpoint to his contemporary, James Bond, who wines (well, martinis) and woos his way around the world. Palmer is more like a civil servant on a road trip for his job than he is a larger than life 007, and this is quite refreshing. It also makes him a bit more believable than Bond, because he can hide in the shadows better.

And as much as we admired Russell’s restraint, we just have to comment on the fact that he does manage to avoid being invisible by using some shots that call attention to themselves. But as we said earlier, overall he does a good job.

Malden is pretty good, but Ed Begley as the whacko Texan, chews the scenery dreadfully – though we wouldn’t be surprised if this was on orders from the folks behind the camera. Oscar Homolka’s Soviet general (a role he also played in Funeral in Berlin) is probably the most fully formed character in the movie besides Palmer.

The DVD is okay. MGM has chosen to release it with anamorphic widescreen (16x9 TV compatible) and Pan&Scan versions on the same disc, which is the way it should be done if you insist on releasing Pan&Scan versions. Picture quality is pretty good, with good color and not a lot of grain.

Audio is Dolby Digital and, as is so common with older movies, is nothing to write home about.

There are no extras, unfortunately.

Billion Dollar Brain, from MGM Home Entertainment
108 min. anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1, 16x9 TV compatible)/Pan&Scan (1.33:1, not 16x9 TV compatible), Dolby Digital
Starring Michael Caine, Karl Malden, Ed Begley, Oscar Homolka, Francoise Dorleac
Produced by Harry Saltzman
Written by John McGrath, Directed by Ken Russell


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Updated May 13, 2006