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Ken Russell the films
Salad Days: Billion Dollar Brain

 


Billion Dollar Brain poster

Billion Dollar Brain from 1967 could have been the start of a wealthy career for Russell, his second film but this one commissioned by the James Bond producer Harry Saltzman, story by novelist Len Deighton and with Michael Caine starring in his third Harry Palmer role.  But the film shows little ability to direct an action film, and you might be mistaken in thinking Russell could make television but not cinema. The pace is too fast with scene, location and plot twist following relentlessly.  It is Russell's only action film apart from Dogboys.  The obituary of Karl Malden in The Times 3 Jul 2009 describes Billion Dollar Brain as the film that torpedoed the Harry Palmer series.

Billion Dollar Brain  Billion Dollar Brain

There is some Bergman-like close photography of faces but it comes across as pretentious.  Michael Caine plays his usual bespectacled detective/spy role without any variation.

In the sauna wearing a large fur coat he claims to be hot but he doesn't sweat. Awaking among a pile of dead bodies (the people he had partied with the night before) the feeling is of the inconvenience of crawling out rather than revulsion or sorrow.

The plot concerns a computer (predictably the billion dollar brain), taking over the world etc etc etc.   The computer will be used to help spread a virus, but not a computer virus, the old fashioned human virus.

Billion Dollar Brain

In the credits the title is also given in digits though the number is well above a billion (even above a British billion which is a million million rather than the American thousand million) having 18 zeroes.  The plot meanders from London to Finland and to Pinewood Studio Russia and America. But the Finnish locations are not used well and could just as well be London.  There is a rich Texan anti-communist General Midwinter ("now is the winter of our discontent") who wants to start a revolution in Latvia. He has some of the phobias of anti-Communist General Jack Ripper from Dr Strangelove (minor actor Paul Tamarin plays in both).

Billion Dollar Brain

  The plot is very silly, and involves eggs smuggled in a thermos flask.

Billion Dollar Brain  Billion Dollar Brain

Ken tries his best to do an action film, but the horror images are skimmed over and it is back to the artistry.

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

The imagery fits a monitor film, but slows down an action film.  And Ken can't do dialogue so the plot development does drag on.

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

And Ken can't resist filling the film with artwork.

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

The shots are beautiful, but clash in an action film.

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar BrainBillion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain

The army on the move look more like a group of people starting an expensive caravan holiday, and the large cast often doesn't work: the opposite of his television work- how to make a large cast seem tiny.

Billion Dollar Brain

The coup fails when Soviet planes bomb the ice and the invading army sinks under the water.

In The Times, 16 Nov 1967, John Russell Taylor says "Ken Russell seems unable to link sequences other than by a showy shock cut, or to resist a constant dazzle of visual irrelevances as we focus in and out on practically anything that happens to come between the camera and its ostensible subject."
 

 


People

Billion Dollar Brain

Michael Caine stars.  Francoise Dorleac co-stars. Having just completed Polanski´s Cul-de-Sac she was a rising talent but sadly died shortly after Russell's film was completed. Both Cul-de-Sac and Billion Dollar Brain feature an island which is accessible by land, either when the tide is out, or over the ice.  Dorleac is the sister of Catherine Deneuve, who appeared in Polanski´s previous film Repulsion.

Donald Sutherland

Donald Sutherland

The then unknown Donald Sutherland plays the computer expert (on the right). His only line is "What's going on?".  He appeared alongside Caine in Hamlet three years before.

Russell regulars Vladek Sheybal (Boyfriend, The Debussy Film etc), Alexei Jawdokimov (Isadora, The Music Lovers) and Iza Teller (Christina Rosetti in Dante´s Inferno, as well as Isadora and The Devils) have minor roles.  Stanley Caine (Michael's brother) has an appearance.  Cinematography Billy Williams, Editor Alan Osbiston.  The writer is John McGrath who also wrote Russell's Diary of a Nobody. It is based on Len Deighton´s novel. In the novel the girl is younger "she ran across the airport like a newly born antelope unsteady on its legs".  Original music is by film and classical composer Richard Rodney Bennett.  The piano is especially effective.  A Beatles song, A Hard Days Night, is also used, one of the few occasions a Beatles song has been used in a film.  Copyright restrictions and costs may have caused difficulties in re-releasing the film.
 

 


Best Image

Billion Dollar Brain

Children on a Finnish windmill-like swing, black against a frozen lake (Mindbender has a similar image on the beach).

Billion $ Brain

The woman in black framed in the silhouette of a black house and tree. There are various black and white images in this colour film.
 

 


Best Scene

Billion $ Brain

Michael Caine traps an intruder who has just picked up a packet of Corn Flakes. "Put your hands up": as he does so the cereals from the corn flake packet fall slowly to the ground.  But the scene is a bit too forced.

 

Billion $ Brain   Billion $ Brain   Billion $ Brain

Billion $ Brain   Billion $ Brain

Caine squares up to the burly soldier who strips for a fight, but it turns out he is only stripping for a shower.

 


Themes

The scene on the ice is a homage to Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky. The film is mentioned in the novel.

The horsemen emerging from a haze in the white snow is similar to Dr Zhivago.
Russian sailors wear their "Death in Venice" sailor costumes.
A record in Harry Palmer's room is the music of Berlioz, more the choice of Russell than Palmer. The Russian commander meets Palmer at a performance of Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony.
There are numerous train journeys including a steam train.
The computers are similar to those in Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
The elements play a role, with fireballs dropping from the sky, and ice turning to water.

Billion $ Brain

The holocaust imagery of the dead bodies in the bath.
There is a film within the film.
 

 


Films

Other films released in the same year include Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.

Bonnie and Clyde  The Graduate
 

 

More films

Click title for film French Dressing * Billion Dollar Brain * Women in Love * The Music Lovers* The Devils * The Boy Friend * Savage Messiah * Mahler * Tommy * Lisztomania * Valentino * Altered States * Crimes of Passion * Gothic * Aria * The Lair of the White Worm * Salome's Last Dance * The Rainbow * Whore * Mindbender * Trapped Ashes/ The Girl with the Golden Breasts

 

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