Billion Dollar Brain (Ken Russell / United Kingdom, 1967):

Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is located as his disheveled London office is searched by a white-gloved POV shot, a Humphrey Bogart portrait is pinned next to a Dolly Read centerfold; Col. Ross (Guy Doleman) promptly dispatches him to Latvia on a mission, the McGuffin is a Thermos bottle full of virulent eggs, the Richard III opener is appropriated as password. The dizzying pile-up effect is the intent of Ken Russell, who takes over the secret-agent franchise and takes the piss out of it, Karl Malden naked in a snowbound sauna guffawing "Don't be so British!" to his bashful guest -- it's not a matter of whittling the genre for the art in it (A Dandy in Aspic) or purposefully degrading it into clarity (Modesty Blaise), but of recognizing its Pop Art impudence and zipping through, smacking every gag. Doctor Zhivago's glam-Russkies are the main targets of the first half, from Françoise Dorléac's bundled-up intro to the "Crusade for Freedom Organization" attempting to palm off a Beatles record before posing for snapshots at a roadside robbery; the second half is a cowboy barbecue photographed by Leni Riefenstahl and Ed Begley's bold, prophetic fire-breathing as a Texas parade-float slaughtering for freedom, "with God on our side." Oscar Homolka, a holdover from the Lenin era and also from Funeral in Berlin, weeps at a performance of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony to refute rumors of Russell's "impersonal" involvement -- further proof is provided in the trail of risqué engravings that lead to a corpse with a frozen-off face, plus the mammoth breaking-ice climax through which the Alexander Nevsky send-up passes on its way to Richard Lester's Three Musketeers epics. Where the Bond films glitter soullessly with perfection, Russell here slams the I-Spy trappings into disjunctively eccentric frenzies, favoring the barnstorming human Ids over the clattering machine Brain: If not art then "momentary interest," as Homolka puts it. With Vladek Sheybal, and Milo Sperber.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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