Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Kino Lorber Studio Classics - THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY, TOPKAPI & BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN on Blu-ray ""

Saturday, October 11, 2014


THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1978; Michael Crichton)
THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY is one of the most solid and yet underseen heist movies of the late 1970s. I remember it being part of a series of widescreen VHS catalog releases that came out in the late 1990s. I was not yet a laserdisc collector, but I certainly was a fan of and proponent for letterboxed versions of films on tape. As Warner Brothers and MGM started to bring out these widescreen tapes, I did my best to stock them at my video store. They didn't rent all that well (in a time before widescreen TVs, it was hard to explain the concept to some folks ). Nonetheless, when THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY became available this way, I made a point to finally see it. I loved it. I had yet to delve remarkably deep into Donald Sutherland's films, but I knew the big ones and stuff like M.A.S.H. and ANIMAL HOUSE made me aware of how funny he could be. As for Connery, I had been a fan of his for a while and I had come to enjoy seeing him paired up with other male actors to see what kind of camaraderie (if any) would develop. The two are a great duo in this and though the film may be a touch more slowly paced than some modern viewers may care for, I think it works quite well and carries a jovial tone throughout. I admire Michael Crichton as a director and it always intrigues and amuses me that he is one of the few authors I know of who have successfully made the jump to directing. Stephen King would give it a shot just shy of a decade later, only to achieve mixed results (though I have a sincere soft spot for MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE). THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY was only his third film (fourth if you count a TV-movie from 1972. His movies are an interesting mix at this point as they include WESTWORLD, COMA and this and though they all contain a decent amount of suspense, each is quite unique from the others. 
The music, by the great Jerry Golsmith, is rousing and invigorating stuff. The themes reminded me slightly of 80s suburban adventures like GOONIES. Seems like Goldsmith was undoubtedly an influence on Dave Gruisin, though in the case of GOONIES apparently he also borrowed heavily from Max Steiner's theme from the ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Anyway, it's lovely Goldsmith-ery and certainly elevates and maintains a perfect mood for the movie. 
Special Features:
This disc features a neat commentary track from the late Michael Crichton himself (originally recorded for the film's release on DVD). Crichton explains the germination of the idea for the film for the first 5 to 6 mins of the track and then continues on to further discuss locations, motifs, and period contextual details that went into the story and design of the film. It's a good track, though it does get sparse from time to time. Crichton is, not surprisingly, a pretty sharp guy and has a lot of interesting things to say about the making of the film and also the historical aspects.

TOPKAPI (1964; Jules Dassin)
Before Matthew Borderick or John Cusack ever addressed the audience directly, Melina Mercouri did it in this film through a psychedelic kaleidoscope of color. This was far from the first fourth-wall break in cinema, and those 80s films have nothing in common with this one, but I always think of them when I see fourth-wall breaking. Now the aforementioned splash of colors occur over Mercouri as she slyly skinks into museum which contains a special jeweled scepter and explains why she wants it. I've not seen an effect like it to often in a movie and it's as if they overexposed the film or something right around her figure, but that's not what they did exactly. It's like a ceran-wrap of color. Anyway, it's very very 60s and the movie thus lets its time period be known in no uncertain terms. Though Mercouri herself is nowhere near the beauty that say Monica Vitti is (her teeth freak me out), she has a lively personality. We all remember what Jules Winnfield famously said of personality right? It goes a long way. So anyway, her target for heisting is the museum containing the scepter and her criminal cohort (Maximillian Schell) proposes using all amateurs on this particular job. Said amateurs include veteran actors Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov (who won the best supporting actor oscar for his role here) among others. It's a fun little caper comedy with all the usual segments - including gathering the team, figuring out the security system and so forth. The film was deftly directed by the great Jules Dassin who movie fans will know from things like BRUTE FORCE (a gritty noir prison flick with Burt Lancaster), THE NIGHT AND THE CITY, THIEVES HIGHWAY and of course RIFIFI. RIFIFI is easily one of the best heist movies ever made and includes an amazing and lengthy robbery sequence that is played with no dialogue. Amazing film. TOPKAPI feels like a master heist film director playing around and fighting below his weight class. It's a much much lighter touch than RIFIFI, but certainly well made and a fun watch.

Here's Ustinov winning the Oscar for TOPKAPI in 1965:

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967; Ken Russell)
The whole world knows the name James Bond, but very few know Harry Palmer. Of the two, Palmer is a very close second for me as far as favorite spy characters in movies go. Based on a series of novels by author Len Deighton, the Harry Palmer films are pretty fantastic and an excellent showcase for the talents of Mr. Michael Caine. Interestingly, the name Harry Palmer was created by the filmmakers for THE IPCRESS FILE (the first film in the series, which came out in 1965). The character in Deighton's books was an unnamed spy, but of course the film character need some monicker so they picked one that seemed as dull and plain as possible to help separate him from James Bond. So anyway, THE IPCRESS FILE is a masterpiece if you haven't seen it and it remains easily one of the best spy films ever made. IPCRESS was followed in 1966 by FUNERAL IN BERLIN, (which is also a solid espionage flick) and then came BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN in 1967. The plot of the film is quite labyrinthine and complex as you might expect so I won't go into detail about it here. All three Palmer films are like this and each one is imbued with a sense of the 1960's in the way they look and how they are designed. I certainly recommend all three films, but BRAIN is easily the strangest of all of the them. This shouldn't be too much of a surprise to folks who are familiar with Ken Russell's films in general (THE BOY FRIEND, LISZTOMANIA, THE DEVILS and WOMEN IN LOVE). That being said, BRAIN is by far his most conventional film and a rare occasion when he was brought on board a project as a director-for-hire. BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN was also the last time Caine would play Harry Palmer until nearly thirty years later when a few TV Movie adaptations cropped up. This was also the final film role for the lovely Francoise Dorleac, the elder sister to Catherine Deneuve. Dorleac died young at the age of 25 in June of 1967, nearly half a year before BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN was released. The cast also includes Karl Malden and Eg Begley. For James Bond fans who want to challenge themselves a little, I thoroughly recommend this series. As for their availability, there is no domestic Blu-ray for THE IPCRESS FILE, but there is a lovely import available. FUNERAL IN BERLIN has no Blu-ray that I know, but the DVD was brought back into print by Warner Archive in 2013.

One big question I've been getting is in regards to the infamous deleted :30 of a specific scene in the film which contained a Beatles song ("A Hard Day's Night"). This scene was a big part of the reason that BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN was absent from home video for such a long time. The scene was cut in the previous MGM DVD release and it remains so on this Blu-ray. One of my favorite online reviewers, DVD Savant, explains:
"the main buzz about Billion Dollar Brain on home video is a deleted scene, or part of a scene, that kept the film off home video until 2005. Harry ignores Colonel Stok's warning and visits Leo's Latvian 'revolutionaries', who turn out to be cheap smugglers. At about 44:25 Harry enters a doorway at the top of some snowy stairs. There's a jump cut as he exits a room with chickens flying around; he then talks to the ringleader of this little den of thieves. What's missing on the MGM DVD and this new Blu-ray is fifteen seconds that go like this: a hard cut from the doorway shows a TV set with singing Latvian soldiers, while The Beatles' song A Hard Day's Night blares out on the soundtrack. The camera pans and dollies about, revealing that the smugglers are trading Beatles records for hard currency or, in some cases, chickens and rabbits. This goes on until Harry stumbles through the second door and the music stops.
Since A Hard Day's Night was originally a United Artists release, we can see how the song got there in the first place. But as the license for the music cue probably didn't call for "all media in perpetuity," the scene can be shown in theaters and Television but not put on home video. It's a cute moment but by no means essential. We'd like it back but the movie doesn't suffer greatly for its loss. "

Here is that scene in its entirety if you would like to see how it originally played:
BTW, Savant's review of the film is excellent and you should read the whole thing:

Here is an audio interview with Michael Caine done to promote the release of the film:
And here is something called "Caine Below Zero" - The Making of BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN:

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