With this film, it was three times & out for Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer, the spy who came in with black frame glasses. Caine actually returned to the character decades later on a couple of forgettable cable pics, but the theatrical run died here; probably from the huge shift in tone from the first two relatively realistic films to this third OTT, hit-and-miss self-parody. Surprise, surprise, the goofball mess has aged better than its sobersided siblings. Not that it seems so at first. The film, a move to commercial cinema for BBC’s uninhibited helmer Ken Russell (infuriating & talented from the get-go) doesn’t nail its tone of lifted-eyebrow absurdity for quite some time. But hang on, it does, as Caine figures out who’s behind the computer-voiced villain ordering him to deliver a coffee thermos of virus infected eggs to Karl Malden in chilly Finland. Even then, you still can’t tell just whom anyone is working for? Crazed Texas anti-communist fascist Ed Begley? Lovely spy of unknown allegiance Françoise Dorléac? Sly Russkie General Oskar Homolka? Or is everyone just out for themselves? Truth be told, they’re all working for James Bond co-producer Harry Saltzman, prefiguring the loose, mocking style of ‘70s Roger Moore Bond pics on a more limited budget, and with the indispensable advantage of Michael Caine’s multi-task acting. Scorned on its release, the film now looks prescient in style & content, and still sharp thanks to Billy Williams’ lensing. It’s also more fun than the Mike Myers spoofs.
DOUBLE-BILL: Karl Malden returned to those newfangled computers the following year, trying to keep Maggie Smith & co-scripter Peter Ustinov from fleecing his company in HOT MILLIONS/’68.