A handsomely produced thriller with sci-fi elements, The Boys from Brazil (1978) is a curious but highly enjoyable adaptation of Ira Levin's bestseller. It's an old chestnut of a story in fancy dress - Nazis trying to restore totalitarian rule throughout Europe and elsewhere with the help of advanced modern technology - one not far removed from trashy '50s thrillers like She Demons (1958). Yet here it's done with classy direction, clever writing, big-name stars, and globetrotting locations. It's also over-the-top, though it's not clear whether the filmmakers consciously decided to go for broke or if the film's wilder elements, particularly Gregory Peck's snarling, scenery-chewing tour de force as Dr. Josef Mengele, simply come off as unintentionally funny. I suspect it's a little of both but mostly the former. A captivatingly dark and comic scene near the end between Peck and longtime character actor John Dehner seems to confirm this.
ITV's region-free import disc is by far the best this film has ever looked on home video. In the U.S., Lionsgate released a DVD version way back in 1999, but that was 4:3 letterboxed and singularly unimpressive. ITV's Blu-ray isn't flawless, but for the most part the image is impressively sharp and the moody cinematography is accurately reflected.
Laurence Olivier co-stars as Vienna-based Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, a character obviously pattered after Simon Wiesenthal. The elderly Lieberman has been receiving mail and overseas phone calls from Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg, not bad in an early role), a radical young Jewish activist in way over his head tracking Nazi war criminals in Paraguay. Inexperience aside, Kohler has stumbled onto something big: Dr. Mengele, the era's most infamous fugitive from justice, has gathered several generations of Nazi loyalists for a strange plot: ninety-four 65-year-old men, all minor civil servant types spread across Europe as well as in the United States and Canada, are to be assassinated as part of a grand plan to restore Hitler's Germany to its former glory.
What's Mengele's plan? Lieberman's gradual unraveling of this mystery is the crux of The Boys from Brazil, and it's an intelligently conceived and fascinating concept made believable, even if it's fairly easy to guess which direction the story is heading.
At the center of it all are Olivier and Peck. Olivier was actually nominated for an Academy Award, though looking at it with three decades of hindsight it's not one of his better performances, though it certainly contrasts his "Is it safe?" teeth-extracting sadist in Marathon Man a few years before. During the violent confrontation with Peck at the end, credibility is stretched because Mengele looks like he could snap the extremely frail Olivier like a dry twig.
One suspects director Franklin J. Schaffner (Planet of the Apes, Patton) may have seen Gregory Peck in John Huston's film of Moby Dick (1956). Though for years afterward Peck regarded it as his single worst performance, in fact he was excellent, almost hypnotic as mad Captain Ahab. In The Boys from Brazil, Peck rolls his eyes, snarls and smolders menacingly throughout; it's not what you'd call a subtle performance, but it's a hugely entertaining one.
The scene between Peck and actor John Dehner as one of the 65-year-olds Mengele is targeting is the film's unintended highpoint. Personally taking over the assassination plot himself, Mengele figures Dehner's character, a Pennsylvanian dog breeder named Henry Wheelock, will be a mild-mannered pushover. Instead, Wheeler turns out to be an intimidating racist bully breeding killer Dobermans. Mengele's reaction of surprise and his attempts to circumvent Wheeler's dogs and kill him is (deliberately) funny and suspenseful.
Similarly, Olivier is best in one-on-one scenes interviewing people as he inches closer and closer to unraveling Mengele's plot. There's another funny scene where Lieberman questions a flirtatious new widow (Rosemary Harris) and later an authentic-flavored scene at a woman's prison with former camp guard Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen). The extremely good cast also includes James Mason (as Mengele's liaison with the present-day Nazi Party), Lilli Palmer (as Lieberman's devoted sister), Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz (as a genetics scientist), Wolfgang Preiss and Michael Gough (as unlucky 65-year-olds), and Walter Gotell and Günter Meisner (as assassins).
Video & Audio
Filmed with Panavision equipment open-matte for 1.85:1 spherical projection, with processing by Rank and theatrical prints by Deluxe, The Boys from Brazil is presented here in an eye-pleasing 1.78:1/1080p transfer. The sharpness of the image helps the nuances of some of the performances while making the bigger-than-life ones that much bigger. (Sadly, the image is also so sharp one can clearly see the horrible rash on Olivier's skin, one of the side effects of Dermatomyositis, the degenerative muscle disease that plagued the actor until his death.)
Watching the Blu-ray disc, one also has a new appreciation for the visually contrasting locales used: Vienna, rural Pennsylvania, Paraguay, and London. Incidentally, titles identifying these locations appear to be video-supered in rather than sourced from (probably grainier) film opticals.
At the 76-minute mark the picture seems to get a tad softer for perhaps a reel; possibly only an inter-negative was available for that one reel, but it's still okay and the rest of the film generally looks just great. The running time of the disc is listed on the packaging as 118 minutes but in fact runs just shy of 125 minutes and is complete.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono accurately reflects the surprisingly mono release in theaters; it's too bad the film wasn't remixed to showcase Jerry Goldsmith's memorable score. Optional English subtitles are included.
The only extra is a trailer, soft and worn but in high-definition. It does a good job selling the picture without giving away too much.
Despite some unintended campiness and partly because of some deliberate dark humor, The Boys from Brazil takes an old wheeze of a story and turns it into something genuinely fascinating, occasionally suspenseful and in the end highly satisfying. After years of waiting for a no-show DVD worthy of the film, this Blu-ray fits the bill quite nicely. Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, The Toho Studios Story, is on sale now.