R.I.P. Ken Russell – 1927-2011

British director Ken Russell has passed away at the age of 84. He left behind a huge body of work over the course of half a century. Much of his work was raw, boundary-pushing and controversial and I think it’s a shame that he fell out of favor by the 90s. Netflix has several of his films available for streaming (though not his best ones sadly)

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) – Not rated

In this final installment of the Harry Palmer spy trilogy, Palmer (Michael Caine) has left the espionage game to work as a private eye but is pressed back into service when an American general (Ed Begley) tries to foment an uprising in the Soviet Union. Tasked with thwarting the lunatic general — who’s using a supercomputer to carry out his sinister plan — Palmer must join forces with his former Russian foil (Oskar Homolka).

I really liked the Harry Palmer series of books by Len Deighton. They were more serious than James Bond but not nearly as impenetrable/convoluted as John Le Carre’s George Smiley series. Having said that, this movie is dated and quite silly but still entertaining due in large measure to the presence of Michael Caine and Russell’s visual sense.

The Music Lovers (1970) – Rated R

Creative passion, sexual desire and astounding excess dominate director Ken Russell’s controversial biopic, which follows flamboyant composer Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain) through his marriage to nymphomaniac Nina (Glenda Jackson) and his love affair with a count (Christopher Gable). The score features the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor AndrĂ© Previn performing several of Tchaikovsky’s works.

This one will give you a real taste of what Russell was like as a director. With the gloves off, Russell gets to revel a bit in sexual debauchery, homosexuality, and camp. Naturally great music accompanies this film.

The Russia House (1990) – Rated R

After intercepting a Russian manuscript meant for small-time publisher Barley Blair (Sean Connery), CIA agents urge Blair to follow up on the deal. He wants nothing to do with it — until he sees a photo of the book’s beautiful editor, Katya (Michelle Pfeiffer). Based on the John le CarrĂ© novel, this beautifully photographed tale of Cold War intrigue was one of the first U.S.-produced films to be shot largely on location in the Soviet Union.

This film is so restrained that I still have trouble believing it is a Ken Russell film. Still Sean Connery is fun and Michelle (Catwoman) Pfeiffer is gorgeous. The cinematography is gorgeous as well but the plot moves at a glacial pace.

Other Ken Russell films currently on Netflix streaming:

Salome’s Last Dance (1988) – Rated R

Framed as a play within a film, Ken Russell’s otherwise faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” — a tale of a young biblical temptress — follows the writer (Nickolas Grace) as he watches the performance while lounging in a brothel with his lover (Douglas Hodge). After John the Baptist (Hodge) spurns her advances, Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott) demands that her stepfather, King Herod (Stratford Johns), deliver the disciple’s head on a platter.

Lady Chatterly (1993) – Not rated

At the urging of her paralyzed, impotent spouse, Lady Chatterley finds a lover in the form of her husband’s handsome gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. After embarking on a steamy affair with Mellors, the noblewoman experiences a sexual awakening.

Trapped Ashes (2006) – Rated R

Trapped in a house of horror, seven people discover that the only way they’ll get out alive is to tell their scariest stories, setting the stage for five tales from directors Ken Russell, Sean S. Cunningham, Joe Dante, Monte Hellman and John Gaeta. This anthology includes spine-tingling tales of sexy succubi, possessed breast implants, nightmarish dream hauntings and more. Jayce Bartok, Lara Harris and Henry Gibson star.

I have yet to see this but Ken Russell directed the segment, “The Girl with Golden Breasts”. Rest in peace, Mr. Russell – you will be missed.