Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

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Released 18-Jan-2005

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Thriller Scene Selection Animation
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1967
Running Time 103:23
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Language Select Then Menu
Region Coding 2,4 Directed By Ken Russell
Studio
Distributor

MGM
Starring Michael Caine
Karl Malden
Ed Begley
Oskar Homolka
Françoise Dorléac
Guy Doleman
Vladek Sheybal
Milo Sperber
Janos Kurutz
Alexei Jawdokimov
Paul Tamarin
Iza Teller
Mark Elwes
Case ?
RPI $14.95 Music Richard Rodney Bennett


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
German Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
French Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Italian Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 2.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 2.45:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 2.35:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English for the Hearing Impaired
German for the Hearing Impaired
French
Dutch
Norwegian
Greek
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

    This was the third of the Harry Palmer films, following The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin. All three starred Michael Caine as a much more realistic superspy than James Bond, more in keeping with the down to earth school that also produced The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Callan. Based on the character created by Len Deighton, these three films were followed by two made-for-cable efforts in the mid 1990s: Bullet to Beijing and Midnight in St Petersburg, both also starring Caine.

    At the beginning of this movie, Palmer has become a private detective, though his former boss wants him back. Palmer's latest client instructs him by phone in a metallic and stilted voice to take a flask to Helsinki for a mere 200 pounds. There he expects to meet Dr Kaarna, but instead he is met by the mysterious Anya (Françoise Dorléac), who leads him to Leo (Karl Malden), an American friend who has left the CIA or similar and has joined a secretive organisation run by a Bible-thumping Texan millionaire and megalomaniac who wants to destroy Communism (George W. Bush, err, sorry, Ed Begley), whose militarist trappings are clearly influenced by Nazi chic. Palmer is forcibly recruited by the British Government to infiltrate the organisation and find out what they are up to.

    Much of the film was shot on location in Finland and looks quite spectacular. The first significant feature film directed by Ken Russell, it has little of the over-the-top quality of his subsequent work, and there are a few fine sequences. It does not quite add up to anything special, especially given the change from the more mundane plots of the two earlier films to a more Bond-like storyline (for example the underground facility of General Midwinter, which looks like Dr No's lair recycled with added computers). This is not so surprising as the series was produced by Harry Saltzman, who also co-produced the Bond films and possibly was looking to emulate their financial success. This was also at the beginning of the era in film that was influenced by the so-called Swinging Sixties, where excess replaced taste and films lost touch with much of their audience. The film is thus caught uncomfortably between two stools: on the one hand, it has moved away from being a realist genre film, but on the other it has not fully embraced self-parody, so in the end it is neither as exciting nor as entertaining as it could have been.

    This was Françoise Dorléac's last film. Some months before its release she was incinerated when her car skidded on a wet road near Nice, crashed into a concrete road sign and burst into flames. She was just 25 at the time of her demise, and perhaps would have gone on to become an international star like her younger sister Catherine Deneuve, but we will never know. She is quite good as the duplicitous Anya, though her role is mainly decorative, much like most of the Bond women. Karl Malden brings little to the role of Leo, and ends up being dull. Thankfully there is not a lot of him in this movie. More amusing is Oscar Homolka reprising his performance from Funeral in Berlin as the Russian spymaster, referring to Palmer as "Eeenglish" and looking like an avuncular Bela Lugosi. Ed Begley, father of the similarly-named supporting actor, is nicely over the top as the fascistic Texan loony General Midwinter. And Michael Caine is the epitome of cool as Palmer, with his often stilted delivery contrasting nicely with the rest of the cast. There are also brief appearances by Vladek Sheybal as a sinister Latvian chemist and Susan George as a Russian train traveller, plus a blink-and-you'll-miss-it single line from a young Donald Sutherland.

    I should mention here that the film is cut, but not for reasons of censorship. When Harry arrives in Latvia and meets the local chapter of Leo's organisation, the soundtrack included a brief excerpt of A Hard Day's Night. Rather than renegotiate the rights to the song for the DVD release, MGM took the easy way out and cut the sequence from the film. The new version of the film is 44 seconds short. A company with a better eye to the market would have gone the extra distance and paid for the rights, produced a Special Edition of the film with audio commentary by the director, Caine and the now-ancient Malden, and added some relevant extras. But this is another opportunity missed.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.45:1 and is 16x9 enhanced. The original aspect ratio was 2.35:1.

    Although this is the best I have ever seen the film look, I have to admit to being slightly disappointed with the transfer. If the camera and the actors are still, then there is a good level of detail visible. The transfer is sharp and the image is bright. Contrast levels are also good, and shadow detail is acceptable.

    The transfer of the colour has been done well for the most part. Colours seem to be realistic and lifelike, with good flesh tones and reds that look well saturated. The snows of Finland are quite pure and clean, but black levels are variable. A few scenes have dark shadows that are more brown than black, and look to have some low level noise.

    There are a few compression artefacts. Edge enhancement is noticeable in some scenes, with a slight halo around objects darker than the background. The worst problem is smearing, which can be seen on close-ups of the faces of the actors when they move slightly. I attribute this to excessive noise reduction, which can be seen in the background at a few points as well.

    Some minor aliasing is noticeable throughout, with a couple of significant instances, for example at 24:19. There is also some severe moiré, at 64:12 and 66:18 on striped clothing. Lastly, telecine wobble is visible in the opening credits and on some shots of written material during the film.

    There are also a number of film artefacts. Vertical scratches appear throughout, with some black (such as at 2:00) and some of the pale white variety. There is a reel change marking visible at 69:51 and a splice mark at 9:49.

    Optional English subtitles are provided. These are in a reasonable sized white font and seem to be consistent with the dialogue.

    This is a single-layer disc, so there is no layer change to contend with.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The default audio track is English Dolby Digital 2.0 and is mono. There are optional tracks dubbed into several other languages.

    Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. The audio generally is a little thin and lacking in body, and slightly strident in the louder passages. It is quite serviceable for a 1960s recording.

    The music score is a quite atmospheric one by Richard Rodney Bennett. Nowadays this sort of score sounds very familiar, but probably sounded original in its day. There is excellent ironic use of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony as the General's army prepares to invade Latvia, linking the symphony's depiction of the German invaders of Russia in 1941 with these modern-day fascists.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Not a single extra is provided. The menu does not even have any words on it, only symbols. There is the symbol of a play button for Play, an open book for Chapter Selection and so on.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 2 release is the only other available edition of the film, and seems to be identical.

Summary

    A minor spy thriller of the 1960s, made enjoyable by the location shooting and the charm of its star.

    The video quality is average.

    The audio quality is acceptable.

    No extras.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationSony TA-DA9000ES
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Tannoy Sensys DCC; Rear: Richter Harlequin; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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