"Moderation is a fatal thing" -- Oscar Wilde
So the news came down today that Ken Russell had passed away. I don't think I've ever written about any of Ken Russell's films, though those films had a formative effect on the younger me. I remember staying up way too late to catch Altered States on HBO when I was 14 and I saw Tommy at a midnight movie a year later and I remember wondering what the hell I was watching on both occasions. Ditto with Crimes of Passion and Gothic and The Lair of the White Worm, all films that appealed to my sensibilities when you look at what they're about on paper, but which doggedly refused to conform to my expectations. And no reason why they should. They're Russell's films, not mine, and they're a challenge. In any event, in honor of Russell's passing, I decided to sit down with one of his movies. I picked Billion Dollar Brain (1967) because its streaming on Netflix right now and because I haven't seen it before and because it has Françoise Dorléac's final screen appearance. It turns out not to be typical of Ken Russell, though, at least not at first glance.
Billion Dollar Brain is the third of the Harry Palmer movies, in which Michael Caine again portrays the secret agent. The Harry Palmer movies were a James Bond knock-off, though perhaps closer to the world of Le Carre than similar knock-offs like the Flint movies. Even though they strove to be a kind of anti-Bond, they weren't fooling anyone. Billion Dollar Brain even has a Maurice Binder title sequence, fer Pete's sake. The wintery setting of Billion Dollar Brain drains it of some of its camp value, as does Michael Caine's cockney accent. Russell was contractually obligated to do the film and didn't want to make it. Caine wanted out of his contract for five Harry Palmer movies (he eventually made five, though he was released after this film). There's a lot of discontent behind the film and I think it shows up on screen. It's not a particularly fun movie, per se. But it IS an interesting movie, because whatever Russell and Caine's discontent with the movie, you can kind of see their interest in things perk up as the movie unspools. The last act of the film in particular turns into the kind of goofy excess Russell would become known for.
The story here finds Palmer retired from the secret agent biz and hanging out a shingle as a private investigator. His superiors at Her Majesty's intelligence want him back, but at an insulting raise in pay. He chooses, instead, to follow the package that has arrived on his doorstep with ₤200 and a mysterious phone call from a computerized voice. This trail leads him to Helsinki, where he finds his old friend, Leo Newbegin (Karl Malden), enmeshed in a plot to overthrow the Soviet Union. Newbegin's right hand is frosty blonde, Anya (Dorléac), whose loyalties are decidedly vague. The McGuffin in this movie is a thermos full of eggs that have been dosed with some kind of biological agent. Newbegin and his cell receive instructions from the computerized brains of the operation, belonging to Midwinter, a crackpot Texas oilman intent on taking down Communism wherever he finds it. Harry has to walk a tightrope to keep himself alive and to prevent Midwinter from fomenting World War III.
Caine himself is in fine form in this movie, but one wishes that he had more colorful co-stars. Karl Malden is a fine actor, but he seems a little plain to be a supervillain. Ed Begley, on the other hand, is a cartoon. He's hard to take seriously. Françoise Dorléac has her sister's frostiness, but Russell punches through it from time to time. There's a shot in this film in which the camera pans up from her toes to her face while she's playing the cello that's something to see. Dorléac doesn't have much chemistry with her co-stars, though, which is a shame.
The plot mostly meanders for the first hour of the film and only really gets going in the second half. It takes some sitting through to get to this stuff, but when it cracks, it cracks wide open. This happens once it introduces Midwinter. When he shows up on screen at an anti-communism rally complete with burning books and a Nazi eagle in disguise behind him, the movie commits to a path of wretched excess, which is Ken Russell's forte, after all, and this might be the first of his movies to foretell the deliriums of Tommy and Lisztomania. Certainly, the weird crypto-Nazi symbolism is gleefully over the top, as is Ed Begley's performance as Midwinter. This is all of a piece with the superspy genre of the period, though, so it may not necessarily seem over the top in context. Still, there are other touches that mark the film as distinctively belonging to its director. The flat where Harry discovers the unfortunate Dr. Kaarna, for instance, is festooned with nudes on the wall paper and in paintings. The director's love of classical music to the point of bombast occasionally manifests itself here, too. The critique of American intentions in the world is interesting, too, and unexpected. The movie has a reputation as anti-American, but I can't help but see eerie parallels to contemporary politics, where God-inspired Texans take the war to the enemy as a means of bringing their version of "freedom" to the world. Midwinter was allegedly inspired by H. L. Hunt (who also inspired J. R. Ewing on Dallas), and represents the toxic combustion you get when you mix religious fundamentalism with oil wealth and energy geo-politicking. This intersection continues to make the world bleed over forty years later.
In any event, fare thee well, Ken Russell. You made movies like no one else, even when boxed in on something like this.