Tuesday, February 21, 2012
How Wars Are Going To Be Fought
The passing of legendary director Ken Russell this past December was yet another signpost that the time for a particular type of challenging film is receding even further into the distance. For me, this is one of those odd cases where I wish I had more to say about a certain subject but, in truth, I’ve always felt a little ambivalent at best about some of his films, maybe having to do with a few unpleasant screening experiences in college as much as anything. As a result, I’ve always had kind of an allergic reaction whenever confronted with his work. Maybe this means I need to turn in my Film Geek card, I don’t know, but I do recognize this as a flaw in myself. Actually, my distant memories of the likes of CRIMES OF PASSION and THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM are pretty good and, so help me, I even saw his film WHORE on opening night in lower Manhattan way back in the fall of 1991. When I was waiting out on the street to go in I got approached by, well, let’s just call her a real life version of the film’s title. She seemed interesting. Much more so than Theresa Russell, not giving one of her finer performances, ever was in the film, which also had just about the highest walkout ratio from a crowd I’ve ever witnessed. That was a fun night. More to the point, I did go to the American Cinematheque for their recent memorial screening of Russell’s THE DEVILS, even though it would be screened via digital source but since with this particular film that might be as good as I’d ever get--Warner Brothers seems so intent on keeping it buried I wonder if I’ll get a chance to see it under optimum viewing conditions ever again. So over two decades after seeing it for the first time in a screening that my memory has as being populated by a snickering hipster crowd that made me truly hate what I was seeing I found myself admiring THE DEVILS immensely, becoming aware of what a truly worthy, brave work it is and admiring how much it still says about our world today.
Maybe I’ll have more to say about THE DEVILS at some point in the future but for the time being I’ll focus on what for some time has been my personal favorite Ken Russell film even if it can’t really be considered a “Ken Russell film” as we’ve come to understand them to be in spite of a considerably bizarre tonal shift that is one of the most interesting things about it—I’m speaking of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, the third in the famed Harry Palmer spy series starring Michael Caine, released in 1967. Now, I’m not the person to address how the film may or may not fit in with the rest of Russell’s filmography but one thing that BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN actually sort of has in common with THE DEVILS is that it was also extremely difficult to see for a long period of time (one second-hand story I’ve heard was that for a time even its star couldn’t get so much as a VHS copy from MGM) though the reasons for this were somewhat different, presumably having to do with a certain music rights issue than any troublesome political content although due to certain elements of the film I almost wouldn’t be entirely surprised if that turned out to be the case as well. Regardless, with the scene in question excised the film now airs periodically on cable and was finally released on DVD in 2005. I’ll get to the nature of what was lost, but it’s really of minor concern particularly considering what some of the rest of the film contains, one of the more surprising examples of political satire I’ve encountered. As certain factions in this world get crazier and crazier by the day some of it may even be as timely as it’s ever been.
Former MI-5 agent Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), now a civilian working as a private investigator, has turned down another overture from his former superior Colonel Ross (Guy Doleman) to rejoin the agency when he is instructed by a mechanical voice on the phone to deliver a mysterious package to Helsinki. Not until he arrives with a package contains several virus-filled eggs that were in fact stolen from the British government does he discover that he is doing a job for his old friend Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden), an American working for something called ‘Crusade for Freedom’ and totally dependant on a special computer, known as The Brain, which issues his instructions. After spending time in Helsinki with Leo and his lady friend Anya (Françoise Dorléac) Palmer is finally tracked down by Ross, who recruits him back to the secret service so he can infiltrate the organization, retrieve the eggs and find out why they were stolen. The path eventually leads him to Texas oil magnate General Midwinter (Ed Begley) a madman in possession of the titular computer with his own army as well as plans to defeat communism by invading Latvia, start World War III and defeat the Soviets but it may not entirely jibe with what Newbigen has in mind.
BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN was preceded by 1965’s THE IPCRESS FILE (directed by Sidney J. Furie) and 1966’s FUNERAL IN BERLIN (directed by Guy Hamilton) and one interesting point about the Harry Palmer series is how different each entry is even down to the basic visual style. Producer Harry Saltzman was of course also one of those in charge of the Bond films at the time but I wonder if it was Albert Broccoli, his partner on the 007 series, who insisted that the approach from one film to the next remain as consistent as possible. In contrast, the three Palmer films made in the 60s (Caine actually made a cable TV return to the character in the 90s but I haven’t seen those films and I’ll bet you haven’t either) don’t really share any major common elements beyond Caine as Palmer, a few side characters, producer Saltzman and the Len Deighton source material. Each film is different enough that they could inhabit an entirely different series. Even the ultra-cool classic John Barry score to THE IPCRESS FILE, possibly the most iconic element of the films aside from Palmer’s eyewear recognizable now from the Austin Powers films, didn’t make a return appearance in the followups. By the time of the third entry BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (screenplay by John McGrath, from Len Deighton’s novel) the film features a majestic theme done in Grand Piano-style by Richard Rodney Bennett and even given a full Maurice Binder main title sequence treatment as if they were trying to move the character away from the very specifically English milieu of the first film into more of a Bond-type realm, something that the end result sort of does and sort of doesn’t.
The tone of the movie isn’t exactly schizophrenic but it does feel a little all over the place as if Russell was desperately trying to do something other than what was expected from your usual spy caper. He certainly never goes as crazy with the camera angles as Sidney Furie did in the first film but certainly does succeed in making it all much more active than the workmanlike approach of Guy Hamilton in his entry—Russell’s direction is constantly active, darting about the frame and making every single close up count as well, with unexpected bits of humor playing off of expectations like the thugs who Palmer expects to be trouble behaving in the exact opposite way. When the story moves into Syd Cain production design territory within the villain’s lair in the second hour Russell never seems to want to stand back and let the set dominate the scene, instead moving his camera through it, not taking even a moment to linger on the sheer size of Midwinter’s lair since Palmer doesn’t seem particularly impressed by it either--the credits include a thanks to Honeywell for the use of their facilities but wherever all this was shot the place certainly has a correct Bond-type look to it. Russell always keeps things moving, even down to how this feels like an early example of a globe-trotting film that doesn’t even bother with the expected shots of planes landing and taking off and also uses the environment in seemingly every single shot particularly in the Helsinki location footage in a way that goes beyond making it a travelogue in a Bond film sort of way, adding immensely to the unique, almost otherwordly feel that comes across. Credit should also certainly go to Billy Williams for this (along with some stunningly luscious close-ups of Dorléac) and, frankly, it has such an effect that I feel much more like I’ve actually experienced some of Finland here, even if it is a version of the place that feels like out of a dream, more than I ever get with something like the way Japan is presented in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE. But I’m not sure that Russell’s abilities, or interest, extended to making sense of the convoluted story or doing much of anything with the character of Harry Palmer so after everything has been set up the second half hour is a little bit too much of the character being sent off by Newbigen on missions involving Latvian gangsters and the like for reasons that feel nebulous at best.
The icy cold of Finland, the sort of setting that feels appropriate for a late 60s Michael Caine spy film, is just about all that sticks in the brain from this half, more so than the spy machinations do anyway and for long stretches Caine as Palmer doesn’t really have much to do beyond that wandering through the snow--that glimpse of the walls of his detective office in the very first scene provides him with more characterization than anything else that occurs in the rest of the film. He’s sort of detached from the main story, not really being affected by anything and, to be honest, I lose track of the plot pretty quickly soon after Colonel Ross turns up in Finland (“It would have befuddled Einstein,” Caine says of that plot in his first autobiography “What’s It All About?”) with maybe a few too many double crosses to keep track of. But when the second hour hits and things move to Texas where the fervent anti-communist Midwinter is finally introduced it comes as a complete jolt--I can still remember being floored by it on my first viewing at an American Cinematheque Harry Palmer triple bill back in ’02 where after the dryness of the two films which came before a friend and I were stunned by what we were witnessing, particularly in the context of that point in time. The way the blustering, through the roof madness of Midwinter, a power hungry millionaire in Texas, seen at his barbecue-slash-political rally declaring love for god and country presented with absolutely unambiguous Nazi-style imagery is presented here maybe seems even more shocking today in the current political environment—you know, in the ‘21st century’ as Midwinter describes the lair where he keeps his Brain. Russell seems intent on making the insanity of Midwinter as absolute and as potentially dangerous as possible while at the same time portraying him as nothing but ludicrous, convinced that others have been brainwashed by the communists and remaining in Texas since that’s the only place where the air is pure. Even his henchmen always seem to be idiotically dressed in cowboy garb as if its part of their uniform in a SPECTRE-type way.
Through its portrayal of the cold war, remnants of post-war Europe and maybe too much of a willingness to place ones fate in the future, personified by the Billion Dollar computer of the title which is fed information then issues its orders (‘it cuts out thinking,’ as Palmer observes) Russell seems to be painting a world of three sides, none of which are to be trusted--America is too all-consumed by either greed or utter madness, Russia seems more than willing to remain jovially fixated on its past and England, while an interested party, is too ineffectual in its bureaucracy. Palmer, the one sane island in all this, barely makes it through himself. Russell keeps things all over the place through the Alexander Nevsky-fueled climax, including how I’m not sure exactly what Palmer’s plan in chasing down Midwinter and his army actually is, but the director certainly seems more interested in the absurdity of it all than in a typical spy movie climax or even in providing the feeling that this story has reached a conclusion that actually makes sense. But it’s to the credit of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, and maybe why I find it so compulsively rewatchable, that it never seems to want to settle down into one particular tone, veering from archly serious spy tale to genuinely manic satire in a STRANGELOVE vein and just to the edge of outright spoof, held back by the grounding of Caine and also Malden. In the end it almost feels like a Harry Palmer picture by default since there’s so little left of the character first established in THE IPCRESS FILE—you can feel Caine as an actor detached for long stretches, as if he never read the script all that closely before shooting and is realizing only when he’s gotten to the freezing location how little he really has to do. Even Malden’s part doesn’t amount to much in the end, even if he is the co-lead, and I’m still not sure if he’s meant to be considered an outright villain or corrupt scoundrel who realizes the error of his ways or what. Even the supercomputer of the title is kind of forgotten about by the end and I suppose I still have some questions about a few points. On the other hand, I do find some of the final moments oddly touching, partly because when a character says goodbye to Harry I know they’re not going to meet again in another sequel but also because what happens between Caine and Dorleac along with what she says to him only adds to her own enigmatic quality, to whatever it is that keeps some of this snow-covered imagery swirling around in my brain. The movie ends on a cheap joke that kind of disregards much of what was presumably at stake and it doesn’t really work but Caine helps to sell the moment. It’s like Palmer is finally ready to make peace with the madness that surrounds him on all sides and if there weren’t any further sequels made at the time that’s probably a good place to leave him.
There’s a trajectory in the development of Michael Caine as movie star as he emerges found in these three films and if he feels the most Palmer-like in IPCRESS but the way he refuses Ross’s overtures at the beginning makes it feel a little like the rising actor is finally through with all this silliness and not keep those glasses on all the time anymore. He’s a little too laid back at times but when he explodes at Dorléac at one point and, especially, at Begley later on (“YOU, GENERAL MIDWINTER, YOU ARE THE BIGGEST IDIOT I HAVE EVER MET!”) it’s as if the actor himself is finally releasing what he’s kept bottled up over not having much to play through much of the film. It’s not the most satisfying Caine performance, mainly because he doesn’t always have much to work with but it is fun watching him navigate this terrain. Malden attacks the role of Newbigen with complete gusto while Ed Begley gives a performance which may very well be one of the few times where I’ve wondered if any actor was going to suffer a fatal heart attack on camera before completing his role—to call it over the top would probably be overstating the matter, with him profusely sweating and bellowing through his endless monologues as loud as possible as if the fate of the free world rests on his next proclamation (“I want my country to win. And the way to win is to strike hard and strike first. I love my country and my dream is to make the thing I love strong. Do you understand me? STRONG! STRONG! STRONG! STRONG!!!”) …which, considering this is what the character believes anyway is exactly how he should be playing it. The cello playing Dorléac, making her final film appearance before being tragically killed in a car accident in June 1967 (both this and THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT were released posthumously) is never anything less than beguiling looking very much like her sister Catherine Deneuve but possessing her own particular enigmatic presence that makes me just want to gaze at her for hours on end even if her character doesn’t always make sense. Along with a few particular close-ups composer Bennett also seems to particularly embrace this aspect of her presence and his recurring theme for her character (which makes much use of the Ondes Martenot, an electronic instrument with a sound that might be familiar to some from its prominent use in Elmer Bernstein’s scores for HEAVY METAL and GHOSTBUSTERS) makes each moment of hers that much more unforgettable. I wish we’d gotten many more films with her. FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE’s Vladek Sheybal appears as a scientist and in addition to Doleman who plays Colonel Ross for the third and final time, Oskar Homolka reprises his FUNERAL IN BERLIN role as the Russian Colonel Stok. Susan George makes an early appearance as ‘Russian Girl on Train’ and Donald Sutherland, who I believe was in London working on THE DIRTY DOZEN at the time, has one line as a computer scientist.
The infamous deleted scene that I referred to isn’t all that important anyway, simply a brief scene involving some black marketeers arguing over a few Beatles records that are playing as Palmer walks past them, no doubt a music rights issue. Cute, but not really missed and if you’re ever lucky enough to see a 35mm print of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN it’ll still be in there. Maybe the new availability of the film has even caused Michael Caine to change his mind since his recent autobiography “The Elephant To Hollywood” seems to treat it with more fondness than his first, calling it “a very atmospheric picture” which, after all, it is. He does still recall the bitter cold in Finland without much fondness but considering how freezing it actually was, however beautiful it looks, who can blame him on that point. I want to say that a little more discipline in the storytelling would have helped some of the political points to cohere but I suppose asking Russell to be more disciplined, even if his filmmaking style hadn’t fully developed yet, is probably missing the point in what he does like wondering why John Ford wants to make westerns or wishing the actors in a Preston Sturges comedy wouldn’t talk so fast. At the very least its madness is presented in a way that truly is unique, particularly in the annals of 60s spy movies and makes me all the more fascinated with it. Usually after writing one of these pieces I’m a little sick of the film but at the moment all I can think is how much I’d like to see it projected again right now and that gives me hope for when I summon the courage to revisit (or, in the case of a few, see for the first time) certain other Ken Russell films in the future. I mean, I’m trying, Ringo, I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd. And nobody ever said this was going to be easy. I’m not sure I’d want it to be anyway.