In the most recent Sight and Sound international critics’ poll to name the ten best films ever made, critic Jack Stevenson put Warner Brothers’ 1965 psychothriller BRAINSTORM on his top ten list.
That choice has an air of critical braggadocio and contrariness in its statement, but this is a film that does have a certain cut-and-paste post-modernity while also being a major studio release that colors outside the lines enough to be more than a little subversive.
If you could imagine re-cutting key scenes from DOUBLE INDEMNITY, GASLIGHT, ANNA KARENINA and SHOCK CORRIDOR into a feature, that would approximate the conceptual wavelength of BRAINSTORM
Some films are like scenic drives, others like the view from a fighter jet’s cockpit, but BRAINSTORM gives a hundred and five minutes of jumping on a trampoline, with escalating, intensifying lift and equally vertiginous gravity pull. In unraveling the aura of BRAINSTORM, examining the big brains behind this head-rush generator of a movie curiously both clarifies and mystifies the aesthetic choices in the film.
Producer/director William Conrad was one of the rare Hollywood talents who could continually find work in a multitude of industry jobs. A familiar sight in film noir, Conrad’s stout physique made him literally a heavy as a supporting actor in SORRY, WRONG NUMBER, BODY AND SOUL, and Robert Parrish’s recently restored CRY DANGER. (It was Conrad and his sidekick who knocked off Burt Lancaster in 1946’s THE KILLERS.) In addition to radio and TV commercial voice work, he was the narrator of THE ROCKY & BULLWINKLE SHOW. Through the ‘seventies, he was a TV detective on back-to-back hit series: CANNON and JAKE AND THE FAT MAN. (Conrad was also one of the few members of the cast and crew of the doomed film THE CONQUEROR to live to a ripe old age: filmed near a nuclear test site in Utah, an abnormally high number of the cast and crew developed cancer afterward, including John Wayne, Susan Hayward, Dick Powell and Agnes Moorehead.)
But Conrad had a lengthy and popular stint as a feature film producer at Warners during the economically shaky 1960s. Actually he was so popular and successful that Jack Warner gave him, as a parting gift, the original Maltese Falcon prop from the film, complete with the gouges made by Sydney Greenstreet’s pocket knife. Among the films he produced — and in this case directed too — was BRAINSTORM. (The film Conrad made after BRAINSTORM was Warner Brothers’ fascinatingly gaudy / smarmy mid-sixties film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s AN AMERICAN DREAM, with its bizarrely perky visuals and hysterical sleaze — watching the movie was sort of like reading The Story of O off a Denny’s menu.)
Conrad got off some good movements with the camera, although other shots used for transition were only serviceable — and the buddy he hired for the final script draft should have had additional help — yet, since they were old pros, the creatives managed to surf the chaos of this archetype cluster-fuck and consistently guide the viewer through its unwieldy world.
What makes BRAINSTORM a film that’s hard to shrug off is how deep, deep signifiers (such as the touches from the classic films listed above) are used to support a tale that basically has no raison d’être except to shock, thrill and make you say “Cool!” now and then. Most movies have a narrower reach in their manipulations, and seldom go solely for the extremes of the top and bottom chakras. Was this a KILL BILL aimed at the Sandra Dee set?? Probably not, but I’m glad I watched it.
BRAINSTORM is now available as one of those DVDs burned on demand from Warner Brothers.