Way too often in the current home entertainment universe, one is confronted with a cinematic obscurity that eluded him/her during its initial release; usually, with good reason. On occasion, however, one is pleasantly surprised by these celluloid rarities – and even delighted. A supreme example of the latter is the Olive Films/Gaumont International Blu-Ray (and DVD) arrival of French director Gerard Oury's 1969 comic book satire, THE BRAIN (aka Le Cerveau).
I vividly recall the TV spots for this farce during its brief appearance in '69 – a sight gag involving prisoner Jean-Paul Belmondo dropping a bar of soap in front of a gendarme, who then careens approximately 400 feet along the bastille corridor. On the basis of this alone, I can't imagine why I didn't immediately rush out to see this movie...but I blinked, and when I decided to check it out...Paramount (the American distributor) beat me to it...THE BRAIN had checked out of Manhattan as quickly as it made its inauspicious debut.
THE BRAIN was one of those glorious international co-productions which proliferated throughout the 1960s. Paramount, in conjunction with Dino De Laurentiis (with whom the Italian producer enjoyed an amazing non-exclusive twenty-year-plus relationship) put up some serious coin with Gaumont to ensure global triumph. While it didn't turn too many craniums in the States, it did remarkably well elsewhere, particularly (and not surprisingly) in France and Italy.
Oury, then riding a spectacular wave of success, happily embraced the all-star cast with which Paramount insisted upon stacking the deck. David Niven (top-billed in the U.S., but third-billed in France behind Belmondo and Bourvil) plays Colonel Carol Matthews, a master criminal, known as The Brain – not entirely due to his insidious genius, but rather because his medulla oblongata is so enlarged that, when aroused or possessed with a devious thought, it causes his head to tilt to the side, replete with creaky sound effects. Yes, you're reading this correctly; this movie is a joyous feature-length cartoon chock full of outrageous visual puns, gags and guffaws.
The rest of the cast is just as game. Eli Wallach portrays exiled Mafioso Frankie Scannapieco, who collaborates with The Brain to heist eight billion (or 16 million, depending upon which subtitle you choose to believe) in NATO money being shipped from Paris to Brussels. Wallach's inept buffoonery qualifies him for the Nigel Bruce Career Achievement Award – no more so than when his jealousy of The Brain morphs into a conniption fit upon learning that his British partner is engaging in nefarious activities of the conjugal kind with the gangster's super-gorgeous sister (the super-gorgeous Silvia Monti). This is the prelude to one of my two favorite BRAIN sight gags...Trust me, there's nothing funnier than seeing two master actors splashing each other in a lake-sized swimming pool like two little girls; the piece de resistance comes when an enraged Wallach stabs Niven's floatation device, causing him to be propelled at rocket speed toward the opposite end of the aquatic respite (tastefully accompanied by le sound effect flatulence).
This brings us to my other favorite gag involving the aforementioned Belmondo and Bourvil. Belmondo, in effect, plays the terrible thief, Arthur – a moron so ill-equipped that he plans an intricate prison escape just days before his actual release. His equally challenged cohort Anatole (Bourvil) reluctantly aids him in a dual-tunneling plan that goes magnificently awry in one of the most hysterical CinemaScope (well, 2.35:1 FranScope) gags I've ever seen. As Belmondo digs (with a Rube Goldberg dirt scooper, concocted from absconding with dozens of prison spoons) from inside his cell, Bourvil does the same from under his taxi. Miscalculating the join points by about six feet, we see the pair burrowing parallel tunnels across the rectangular frame. Can't do it justice – you've got to see it.
Arthur and Anatole's discovery of the NATO shipment inspires them to rob the train themselves – thrusting The Brain into primo Excedrin headache territory. A break-in to The Brain's chi-chi chic Sixties hipster pad results in massive destruction – with the damage blamed on Niven's pet ocelot (yeah, that’s right). Did I mention a wacky car chase with automobiles halved whilst in motion? And where does the Statue of Liberty fit into all of this?
From reading the above, one can well assume that THE BRAIN is one crazy movie. It's a perfect double bill for the other De Laurentiis/Paramount live adult comic caper, Mario Bava's Danger: Diabolik...and wayyy better than the overrated more recognized Barbarella (ditto, De Laurentiis and Paramount), which, striking imagery aside, is pretty awful.
My reluctance to initially spin this platter was due to the fact that this was not the usual Olive/Paramount release; it was from the Gaumont vault (apparently Paramount no longer holds the rights). What I mean by this is the fact that listening to Niven and Wallach, both known for their particular speech patterns, dubbed in French by some paid-for-hire actor would for me be, well a no-BRAINer. This almost always NEVER works, save the atypical instance of Visconti's The Leopard, where Burt Lancaster was dubbed by an Italian actor doing a Lancaster impression. So, is this the terrible fate of THE BRAIN? No contraire! What a kick to see the two of them both actually speaking French (with some occasional English thrown in; Wallach getting an additional thumbs up for reciting his dialog with a gutteral Italian accent).
Oury, in fact, shot the movie in both English and French (the former specifically for the American and British markets). The French cut had the further perk of being at least a reel (15-20 minutes) longer, which is a boost to narrative; it was his version of choice.
THE BRAIN is a cineaste's dream – paying dutiful homage to a variety of directors, comedians and genres. It's a pic Frank Tashlin would have loved (he died the year before its release), and one that Jacques Tati probably did. Belmondo's mugging and penchant for sad sackery smacks (and I DO mean “smacks”) of Jerry Lewis – a tribute accentuated by the use of color and set décor (especially in Niven's apartment). This is further underlined by The Brain’s run-through demonstration of the robbery – literally illustrated via an animated short so detailed that cartoon Niven’s head occasionally collapses on his shoulder. There are additional nods to Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob, Hitchcock, Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street and, the works of Jules Dassin – expressly Riffifi (but also the then-recent Topkapi). The demented scramble for the money further recalls Kramer's It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World finale – wildly popular with French audiences.
Lavishly lensed throughout France, the UK and the U.S., THE BRAIN was Oury's reward for his previous production, the massive comedy blocksbuster La Grand Vadourille (aka, Don’t Look Now, We’re Being Shot At!) – the most successful French movie ever made (it grossed the equivalent of 34 million 1967 dollars – a record not broken in the country until the foreign unveiling of James Cameron's crap Titanic film thirty years later). Two great cinematographers photographed THE BRAIN – Wladimir Ivanov (Barbarella, Spirits of the Dead, The Horsemen, Le Savauge) and the brilliant Armand Thirard (Volpone, La Symphonie pastorale, Les Diaboliques, Guns for San Sebastian), who came out of retirement to serve as special advisor.
The everything-including-the-kitchen-sink script was by Oury, Marcel Julian and Daniele Thompson – the director's daughter. Thompson followed in her father's footsteps by later herself becoming an acclaimed director. More recently, she has worked with her son on a number of profitable comedies, including Season's Beatings (1999) and Jet Lag (2002). Thompson, who began at the top – co-writing the phenomenal Vadourille, commented on working with relatives of the opposite sex (“What I had experienced with my father was rich; it can be great for a man and a woman to work together, because you’ll both bring different points of view, as well as perspectives from different generations”). This is an absolute truism – as evidenced by Monti's character, not just the usual beauteous bimbo dressing. As Sofia Scannapieco, Monti not only gets down and dirty with Niven and Belmondo, but memorably winks at her formidable sexuality via a hilarious moment where, in full bikini seduction mode, she swings off a balcony toward a femme fatale-friendly open shower system designed to keep her perpetually wet.
Composer Georges Delerue's BRAIN music, too, merits attention, as it jubilantly parodies the psychedelic sound of the era – right down to the riotous pop title song, sung at various interludes by The American Breed (known primarily for their hit, “Any Way That You Want Me”); The lyrics sing for themselves and feature such gems as “There's a handsome price on his handsome head...” Hey, how can one NOT love a song that offers as its lead-in: “Who's got a computer for a mind?”
The Olive/Gaumont transfer of THE BRAIN is plain out stupendous, virtually pristine, razor-sharp imagery and crisp mono sound; I daresay it looks much better than had it been part of their generally excellent Paramount series. The movie's 115 minute running time effortlessly flies by with one wacky episode crowning another. Viewers who look upon foreign films with disdain take note: 90% of THE BRAIN is visual, and what with its attractive cast, great score and retro look...well, you've got nothing to carp about. Besides, where else can you find a movie that gives equal time and respect to both Henri-Georges Clouzot AND Jacques Clouseau?
THE BRAIN. Color [FranScope, 2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. UPC # 887090033909; CAT # OF339. SRP. $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC# 887090031905; CAT # OF319. SRP: $24.95.