Wild About Harry

Mr/Dr Soderbergh @ 2016-09-13

Once again, a prosaic practical necessity has created a steaming pile of art. 

In this case, I needed video material to display at our Singani 63 event at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans this past July. The “theme” for the event was 60s European espionage films, so I choose the Harry Palmer series as my jumping off point, and began preparing for one of my now-patented, never-watched mash-ups. Again, this was designed to be visual wallpaper, with the idea if you crafted a good buzz and decided to focus on it exclusively, it would hold/reward your attention. 

As much as I enjoy the early Bond films, I’m more drawn to Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer character, because Harry seems closer to my own capabilities and appearance, and also the three produced films are, in my opinion, markedly better directed than any Bond film until OHMSS (which I’ve written about on this site). In fact, I think you’ve got two directors doing their career-best work here, and one very talented director trying REALLY hard to make something interesting. 

The three films in the series, THE IPCRESS FILE, FUNERAL IN BERLIN, and BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, were produced by Harry Saltzman, one of the original Bond producers, and IPCRESS employs some key members of the early Bond creative team: production designer Ken Adam, editor Peter Hunt, and composer John Barry. The director was Sidney J. Furie, and if Sidney knew anything, he knew what a shot was, and that’s no small thing. He obviously studied his Orson Welles and Carol Reed (among others) very closely, as evidenced by the unending parade of low, high, and canted angles, all employed to consistently good effect. Like Reed but unlike Welles, he doesn’t go for lengthy, multi-destination shots; he likes to cut and cut often, though always with purpose—it’s an impressive piece, and my favorite of Furie’s films. Other elements of note: Otto Heller’s ultra high-contrast photography (with the key light typically hotter than “on” exposure), which is well-suited to the inherent graininess of the two-perf Techniscope process; Peter Hunt’s razor-sharp cutting; and Sue Lloyd’s wonderfully sly turn as Jean, a cynical colleague of Harry’s. Ms. Lloyd probably gives the best performance of any of the female leads in the series, not only because it’s the best-drawn character, but she’s also the best actress of the group (while I’m a fan of Francoise Dorleac--especially in Polanski’s CUL DE SAC--her character in BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN just isn’t as interesting to me as Sue Lloyd’s. Dorleac, who was Catherine Deneuve’s elder sister, would die in a car accident not long after wrapping BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN). 

The second film, FUNERAL IN BERLIN, is a smart, solid Cold War defector/ spy swap tale, and Guy Hamilton’s anamorphic compositions and staging are bolder, cleaner, and more precise than in any of his other films. Other strong points include some amusing side characters (Hugh Burden in particular) and striking location work, while on the weak side I’d have to point out that the female lead and male co-lead performances are somewhat underwhelming. Konrad Elfers’ score is not to my taste, but its theme does have the makings of an earworm, like it or not. 

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, directed by Ken Russell, is a truly frustrating film. Visually it’s an exciting movie to watch--I pulled all the great shots into the mash-up, and there are a LOT of them--but the terrible plot subsumes it all. The truly stunning exterior imagery and staging anticipate Russell’s famous, upcoming work, and if you can find any of the composer bios he made for the BBC prior to this, check them out; they’re unbelievably great.

So I’d place IPCRESS first because of its overall consistency and visual imagination, followed by FUNERAL IN BERLIN because of its solid narrative construction, and BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN a not-TOO-distant third solely because of Russell’s shot-making abilities. 

According to Wikipedia, a fourth film was planned but never produced, and in the mid-90s Michael Caine reprised his role as Harry Palmer in BULLET TO BEIJING and MIDNIGHT IN ST. PETERSBURG, neither of which I’ve seen.

As for the Flying Lotus soundtrack, if you’re not into him, well, I feel bad for you.

Cheers, Col. Ross