Celebrated film director Ken Russell, he of the classical composer biopics and outlandishly over the top interpretation of Tommy, has passed, and the world is a poorer and quieter place for it. Those who only remember the Nazi-themed portrayal of Cosima Wagner in Mahler forget the ending, where Russell lets his audience hear the thunderous applause following a live performance of the Fifth Symphony.
Composers like Gustav Mahler were heroes to Russell, and thus his enthusiastic portrayals of them. But he was, on occasion earlier in his career, a director for hire, and it is here that he came to take on the third film in the Harry Palmer series, Billion Dollar Brain, filmed in London and Finland to the backdrop of winter scenes and an unusual line in espionage
Music + excerpts without commentary
Russell indulges in a few idiosyncrasies – side-on shots such as the meeting by the “big wheel” in the park – but otherwise directs it straight. However, it is the story that has such a modern relevance – and which turned off audiences, especially in the USA, on first release. Because, in a Cold War thriller of all films, the bad guy is not the Russian, but the American.
General Midwinter, played in gloriously over the top style by Ed Begley, loves his country and hates the Commies. This Texas oilman believes God is on his side. He, and his computer system – the Brain of the title – are fed information telling them exactly what they want to hear, that people in a faraway country are waiting to rise up and be liberated from their overlords.
The information comes from those on the make, and is manifestly false: thus the parallel with the USA and Iraq. In the latter conflict, Ahmed Chalabi and his pals squirreled away millions of Dollars, but in Billion Dollar Brain, those trying to make a fast buck meet their end at the barrel of a gun: some by the Russians, some by their own side.
Iraq, of course, was not subject to cinematic deadline, and there is unrest there yet. But those who like their hidden gems of cinema could do a lot worse that seek out Billion Dollar Brain. This was also the last film of Francoise Dorléac, impossibly beautiful elder sister of Catherine Deneuve, who died in a car crash soon after filming had been completed. She was just 25.
[One word of warning: you will have trouble keeping Richard Rodney Bennett’s main theme out of your head after a couple of hearings]