Harry Palmer Files – 001 – RIP Karl Malden / Leo Newbegin

This post originally appeared on the Mister 8 website, July 3rd, 2009 and coincided with the passing of actor Karl Malden

Starting today, and continuing every Sunday, we’ll be looking at the Harry Palmer series of novels (in which the character doesn’t actually have a name), their author — Len Deighton, the films based on them, the star of those films — Michael Caine, and the television movies that followed, and giving my thoughts on all I encounter. I’ll inevitably be drawing heavily on the collection of Kees Stam, author of The Harry Palmer Movie Site, and other odds and ends that I’ve turned up over the years.

I’ve been intending this series of posts for awhile, and it’s unfortunate that the sad news of the death of Karl Malden serves as the kick-off to the series, but so it goes…

Karl Malden credit in Billion Dollar Brain

In the last film of the Palmer trilogy, Billion Dollar Brain, Malden played Leo Newbegin, an old acquaintance of Harry’s who wants to get him involved in a profitable venture involving a supercomputer and a megalomaniacal Texas billionaire. Newbegin’s true goals aren’t cooperative or altruistic, but self-serving. In the end, he’s brought down by that commonplace Achille’s heel, love for a cold and uncaring, yet beautiful blonde.

Billion Dollar Brain was certainly not the highlight of Malden’s career (actually, it’s hard to put a finger on a single highlight — was it How the West Was Won? On the Waterfront? Patton? His role on television’s Streets of San Francisco?), but even here, in a mostly thankless role, he excels. In his character’s debut, he’s nude in a sauna, greeting the secret agent turned detective who once saved his life:

“It’s a bit warm in here for me, Leo,” says Palmer.

“Well don’t be shy, take your clothes off,” replies Newbegin. Then, responding to Palmer’s hesitation: “Oh, come on, don’t be so British!”

In fact, why don’t we enjoy that entire scene, which may have also been, as you’ll see in the end, an influence on nude scenes in the Austin Powers films:

Malden was one of those classic character actors, always recognizable from the bulbous nose he got from twice breaking it as a youth, but also melting into any character put before him. Malden would substantially improve any film that he was a part of, this one included.

Kees was kind enough to upload an interview with Malden from the set of Billion Dollar Brain. I thought this exchange was especially interesting:

Interviewer: It seems that the heroes of films today are the new ugly so-called, as opposed to the pretty boys of yesterday.

Malden: I think they’re coming to their fore — they’re just beginning to come to their fore. I think you take a look at Burt Lancaster. You take a look at Lee Marvin, you take a look at Ernest Borgnine, who is kind of the leader of this whole thing. I think we’re gonna have our day, and I belong in that category, the leading man, the ugly leading man…

2 Comments Posted in Film and Cinema
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  1. Thanks for keeping Armstrong’s great work alive here, David!

  2. G’day Tanner – happy new year. I (obviously) feel the same way. I didn’t want Armstrong’s great series of posts relegated to internet ‘history’.

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