Archive for Billion Dollar Brain

The Secret Diary of Harry Palmer

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 6, 2016 by dcairns


Len Deighton is a poet. Who knew?

I picked up Horse Under Water, the second of Deighton’s “unnamed spy” novels, and the first one not to be filmed with Michael Caine. I’m not sure why it was skipped in favour of Funeral in Berlin, since Michael Caine has said he chooses projects based on (1) quality (2) money (3) is the location somewhere nice? A lot of this one takes place by the seaside in Portugal, he’d have loved it.

The hideously convoluted plot does its job, the laconic dialogue is a lovely British take on hard-boiled repartee, but it’s the prose which kept me happy as I sweated through my sickbed ~

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lamps jaundiced our way towards Slough.

That’s making me feel ill, said Fiona when I read it to her. A gross, bitter sentence that contains “dredged,” “sludge,” “jaundiced” and still manages to reach a climax of nausea with “Slough.” Someone else might just have said “I got the airport bus.” Deighton goes on ~

Cold passengers clasped their five-shilling tickets and one or two tried to read newspapers in the glimmer. Cars flicked lights, shook their woolly dollies at us and flashed by, followed by ghost cars of white spray.

At the airport everything was closed and half the lighting was switched off to save the cost of the electricity we had paid seven and six airport tax for.

First, Deighton really notices stuff, so he can write down things nobody else has got to write about, like the mirage afterimage of cars in rain. And he feels stuff — mostly grumpiness about Britain. All the really striking sentences are about the awfulness of Britain. The book flashes back and forth between London and Portugal with a couple of Moroccan jaunts and one Spanish one. Also Wales, which is like London but colder and emptier. Also Gibraltar, which is close to Portugal but British and therefore awful ~

Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonizing way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.

“Blood, vomit and alcohol,” I said to Joe, “It should be on the coat of arms.”

“It’s on just about everything else,” he said sourly.

“Sour” is a very good word for the overall tone, which is what makes Deighton such a good Bond antidote. LeCarre provides misery and melancholy, Deighton adds spleen.

If they had filmed this in 1966 — well, for one thing, the London scene had changed a lot in the three years since the book came out, had it not? But they would have had to do a lot of wrestling with plot to find clear cinematic was to exposit the complexities. And the effect of shuttling back and forth between somewhere glamorous and hot and somewhere bleak and cold would have been very interesting — a can’t think of many films that do the hot-and-cold showers thing.


Her smile was like a thin shaft of Christmas-afternoon sunshine.

Later, our unnamed hero is on a train eating British Rail chicken in gravy (Deighton is also a food critic) ~

The blonde girl with the painted face was putting pink acetate on her fingernails; the acrid smell assailed my taste-buds as I chewed the chicken – it was better than no taste at all.

I love the first three Harry Palmer films — it was felt that the unnamed spy had to have a name, but it should be a bland one, to emphasise his anonymity. The character’s innate laconic, slightly insolent, low-affect tone was a gift to Michael Caine, who basically morphed into Palmer and carries the spy with him, always. I also like how the movies are so different, unlike the Bond series — each has a totally different director, a different screenwriter and a different composer, and although Otto Heller was cinematographer on the first two, he only uses the “Sid Furie shot” in the one that Sid Furie shot. I think I’m going to watch FUNERAL IN BERLIN now, since it’s the one I don’t remember at all. Guy Hamilton did not have the personality of Furie or, heaven knows, Ken Russell (BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN is a masterpiece and should be studied), but he made the best Connery Bond and was nothing if not efficient.

Horse Under Water (the explanation of the title is a spoiler) has a bleak and bitter conclusion, then a sexy coda, then several appendices, which allow Deighton to end it with ~

I closed the file.


Dinner with Andre

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on March 29, 2008 by dcairns

More De Toth, you say? OK!

My Dinner with Andre

De Toth, among many other things, was second unit director on LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (and Nicholas Roeg was his cameraman), during the later part of his career when he also produced BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN for Ken Russell and generally did things other than directing his own films. On LAWRENCE, most of his ideas were rejected (“Revolting!” Lean would say) but he was still very useful to the production.

When Sam Spiegel decided that Lean was never going to finish the film in Arabia and arranged to have the unit shifted to Almeria, Spain, it was decided that the production would have to buy some camels and import them. I think the figure was fifty camels, including ten silver racing camels.

(Stop me if you’ve heard this before.)

De Toth is presented with a problem. Several production personnel have visited the sheik, and arranged to buy these camels, but the deal never seems to go through — the camels don’t come. André is the muggins who must go and investigate.

The deal is agreed once again, over a banquet. Then, the sheep’s eyeballs are brought in. A rare delicacy. De Toth shrewdly realises the problem. All the previous production emissaries have refused to partake of this treat — a fatal insult to the sheik. To make sure the deal goes through, De Toth must chow down on ovine orb.

For a brief moment he imagines that the consumed eye will replace his own missing left eye. He pops the thing in his mouth. Not so bad. Yes it is. Worse! Unendurably repugnant. He swallows, the sheik is appeased, and De Toth will awaken gagging for many nights to come, re-experiencing the traumatic sweetmeat.

The Sheep Man

De Toth and the camels and their herders go to Spain.

One morning, he is awakened in his hotel suite by the smell of camel dung. The camel herders are standing round his bed. They have bad news. The camels have escaped. All of them. How has this happened? Nobody knows.

Imagining haveing to return to Arabia and eat another sheep eye, De Toth pulls out all the stops. Soon he has the Guardia Civil sifting the dunes for his fugitive ruminants. Partial success! All ten of the silver racing camels are recaptured, but only 37 of the regular ones.

Defeated, De Toth reports the camel shortfall to Lean’s trusted assistant, an indefatigable and resourceful woman. “Mr. Lean specifically asked for 50 camels and I only have 47.” She thinks. “We won’t tell him,” she decides.

Lean goes into battle with 47 camels and never notices the difference. Nobody thinks to count them.

Dirty Pretty Thing

As for the missing camels, De Toth reports that they were still living in the Spanish desert when he shot PLAY DIRTY there some years later, adding enormously to the conviction of his North African setting. “We could never have afforded them otherwise.”

Almeria in those days was such a popular location that film shoots would actually collide — De Toth’s armoured vehicles would break into the background of Edward Dmytryk’s western SHALAKO, while Dmytryk’s cowboys and Indians rampaged across De Toth’s WWII campaign.