Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) has retired from the British secret service to be a private detective. But his old way of life comes back to haunt him when he receives a mysterious telephone call ordering him to take a flask to Finland and await further instructions. Pausing briefly to check the contents of the flask with a shoe shop's X-raying machine, he sees that it is carrying eggs, and proceeds to Scandinavia where he is told to meet with a Dr Kaarna. But he actually meets a young woman, Anya (Francoise Dorleac), who takes him to see an old friend, Leo (Karl Malden). Leo is caught up in an international money making scheme of his own devising, and now Harry is inextricably involved, too...
Billion Dollar Brain was adapted from Len Deighton's novel by John McGrath, and was the last of the trilogy of Harry Palmer spy adventures. Harry Palmer in these films was the ordinary bloke's answer to James Bond, but when you see the flashy Maurice Binder title sequence that opens this one you could be forgiven for thinking that Harry had sold out. While Harry was never exactly The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, rest assured that he is his old down-to-earth self here, played with Caine's understated charm and pragmatic outlook, no matter how extravagant the plotting becomes. And he spends most of his time in the cold in this one, thanks to the snowy landscape of Finland.
At one point the bewildered Palmer asks, "What's going on?", and you may well be asking the same question by the halfway point of the film. To sustain the mystery of the adventure, he is kept in the dark and shuttled around by various shadowy agencies for a large chunk of the running time, meaning that you may well be as confused as Palmer is. McGrath and Russell work hard to keep you off guard, with humour and a touch of the macabre. When Palmer awakes under a pile of dead bodies (he has a habit of being knocked out by the villains) he manages to get free, only for a group of Soviet soldiers to barge in and catch hold of him. Palmer fears the worst, but all they do is clean him up with a cloth and hot water!
Leo has been ensnared in the plans of crazed, Texan, multi-millionaire Midwinter (Ed Begley) who believes that his beloved U.S.A. isn't doing enough to battle the spread of Communism. It's unusual for the time that the Soviets, represented by Colonel Stok (the superb Oskar Homolka), are presented as more reasonable than the Americans. In fact, the big business we see here has decided to arm itself and go into war against the biggest threat to its interests, all fired up with patriotic fervour. The British and the Soviets, although they are rivals, don't want another World War set off by a private venture, and are doing their best to prevent it.
However, they reckon without the greedy Leo, who has been feeding false information to Midwinter's supercomputer, the Billion Dollar Brain of the title, so he can make easy money. Being the sixties, the computer fills a room the size of a warehouse and needs a staff of a hundred to operate it, as all the while it plans the invasion of Latvia, which Midwinter hopes will inspire a new revolution. The finale is spectacular and darkly funny, as events take an unexpected turn, and Palmer discovers, as always, he is a small cog in a large machine. They just wanted him to bring back the deadly virus-filled eggs, after all that. One of the most eccentric of the 60s Cold War films, Billion Dollar Brain is better on second viewing, when you can work out the clever but convoluted plotting. And it looks great. Music by Richard Rodney Bennett, including a fine piano theme. Two belated sequels were made for television in the nineties, also starring Caine.
It was trips to the cinema with his mother that made British director, writer and producer Ken Russell a lifelong film fan and this developed into making his own short films. From there, he directed dramas on famous composers for the BBC, and was soon making his own features.
After the seventies, which he ended with the biopic Valentino, his popularity declined somewhat with Altered States suffering production difficulties and later projects difficult to get off the ground. Nevertheless, he directed Crimes of Passion, Gothic, Salome's Last Dance, cult horror Lair of the White Worm and The Rainbow in the eighties, but the nineties and beyond saw more erratic output, with many short films that went largely unseen, although a UK TV series of Lady Chatterley was a success. At the age of 79 he appeared on reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother but walked out after a few days. Russell was one of Britain's most distinctive talents, and his way of going passionately over the top was endearing and audacious, while he rarely lost sight of his stories' emotional aspects.