Monday 28 November 2011

Ken Russell, RIP

British film director Ken Russell died over the weekend, after a long illness. He was 84 years old.

Famous for films like Women in Love and the Who's Tommy, he was also the director of the third Harry Palmer movie - Billion-Dollar Brain. Filmed in 1968, the film is not as fondly remembered as The Ipcress File or Funeral In Berlin, but it arguably had much going for it and was certainly visually very appealing.

After two 'conventional' directors in Guy Hamilton and Sidney Furie for the first two movies, producer Harry Saltzmann plumped for someone a little more unconventional for the third movie; but this only his second major feature and one year before Women In Love, which attracted attention for its male nude wrestling scene (one suspects Saltzmann might have thought twice had Russell already made this film and thought: 'Is this my guy?').

The location shooting in Finland is spectacular and arguably it must be difficult to make a duff film in such a beautiful location. It works along at quite a pace and the battle on the ice, as Midwinter's troops race to Latvia, is pretty spectacular and demonstrated the financial oomph the studio was putting behind the Palmer character after the successes of the first two films. Obviously a scholar of film history, the scene on the ice, between the two onrushing armies, is an homage to Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky film of 1938.

The music is excellent, too: the score offers a relentless, harsh mood (like the Baltic weather), with a focus on brass and percussion including three pianos; the score constantly varies the main theme. What it lacks, maybe, is the cockney charm of London or the Cold War vitality of Berlin from the earlier two films.

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