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In the 1970s, one way to secure financial backing for a high budget show with big stars was the "high-concept event movie". A screen original such as The Sting was the exception: the best-seller adaptations Airport and The Godfather are two titles that kicked off the trend, with many big hits (The Exorcist, Jaws) making movie marquees look like the paperback rack at the supermarket. The successful film version of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby ensured that his next high-concept novels would be snapped up by film producers. Sir Lew Grade's ITC company collected a fine group of talent to make Levin's1976 novel The Boys from Brazil, one of the bigger film releases of 1978.
Screenwriter Heywood Gould (Rolling Thunder) closely followed Levin's novel. Although the authorities mostly ignore him, Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) toils away in Austria with his sister Esther, gathering evidence against former Nazis. Then he gets a call from amateur investigator Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg), who says he has found the infamous fugitive Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) in Paraguay. The skeptical Lieberman only slowly uses information from Kohler and new volunteer assistant David Bennett (John Rubinstein of Zachariah) to learn of a strange conspiracy. Ninety-four civil servants in Europe and North America, all 65 years of age, are to be murdered on specific dates. Why? Back in Paraguay, the bitter Dr. Mengele argues with Eduard Siebert (James Mason), his contact with the neo-Nazi organization that is bankrolling Mengele's incredible scientific project to produce an ideal new leader for a Fourth Reich.
The term 'high concept' translates as 'clever narrative gimmick', one sufficiently interesting in itself to attract viewers. Like Michael Crichton and his tricky scientific thrillers, Ira Levin came up with a number of successful whoppers. Twenty years earlier, a movie about robot housewives or a coven trying to create a Satanic messiah would have been a fit subject only for a cheap John Carradine movie. In The Boys from Brazil a bunch of Nazi holdouts are using the novel notion of cloning to accomplish basically the same thing as Roman Castavet's New York Satanists. A decade later Michael Crichton would pull off an even more brilliant cloning idea with his novel Jurassic Park.
The Boys from Brazil is well produced and directed. Ezra Lieberman character is directly based on the real Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who spent decades trying to track down war criminals in hiding. Obtaining justice for the millions murdered by the Nazis is of course one of the most serious concerns of the 20th century, and making a relevant and tasteful film on the subject has never been easy. The Nazi-hunting thriller The Odessa File is reasonably respectful, yet still a spy/conspiracy chase film that uses the Holocaust to provide a novel context. What do audiences take away from these films?
The Boys from Brazil plays like a comic book story, with a pack of nasty villains toasting their evil plans. The settings are realistic and the story fairly eventful, but the main characters are cardboard-thin. Rock-rigid and made up to look like a pallid wax figure, Gregory Peck's Dr. Mengele seems permanently at attention, as if he's been gnashing his teeth constantly since 1945. Peck was often criticized for posing instead of acting, or letting his voice do the acting for him. Here his straining jaw muscles do all the work -- the rest of his face might be a rubber mask. Mengele stalks around his jungle compound like a Nazi Colonel Kurtz, terrorizing the Paraguayan Indians that work for him and apparently victimizing some of them with his atrocious experiments. Back at his in-town mansion, the Bad Doctor has a goon squad at his disposal to run down and exterminate any snoops that might learn where he lives. Mengele is coldblooded when ordering the death of a child, but turns into a raving maniac when his cloning project is threatened. He attacks a friendly cohort at a party and screams at the man's protesting wife: "Shut up you ugly bitch!" The reason that Peck's Dr. Mengele comes off as ludicrous may be the concept itself -- there's no way to express how monstrous a figure like Mengele really is. The murderous mad doctor just comes off as a goofy senior citizen with a nasty temper.
Laurence Olivier had played a far more interesting Nazi doctor two years before in Marathon Man, but even that was something of a camp performance, a new take on dental visit anxiety. Olivier must have decided that his Ezra Lieberman wasn't very interesting, for he animates the character with all kinds of vocal tricks and facial tics. None are overplayed yet it looks like we're watching Larry's Greatest Hits of Fussy Acting. Of course the character is more interesting than it might be as played by almost any other actor. But it still looks like a desperation move.
Mengele and Lieberman don't meet until the finale, and most of the supporting characters work in isolated scenes. James Mason gets in a strong moment or two as Mengele's main sounding board. Young Steve Guttenberg is excellent as the eager amateur sleuth, while we don't see enough of the gorgeous Lilli Palmer, Denholm Elliott, Bruno Ganz or Michael Gough. Rosemary Harris, Anne Meara and especially Uta Hagen have terrific little scenes with Olivier. Ms. Harris's rich widow flashes her leg at the elderly Lieberman, while the powerhouse Uta Hagen rages at him during a jailhouse interview. Notable young face Linda Hayden is barely in for two or three shots, but good old John Dehner gets a solid scene with Gregory Peck at the conclusion. Just as in every movie about Nazis made since The Guns of Navarone, sturdy workhorses Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss, Günter Meisner and Wolf Kahler do the heavy lifting in both action and expository scenes.
Franklin Schaffner's handsomely directed film has always been reasonably popular, but it still plays like a high-budget movie of the week, with impressive locations but few real surprises until the dog-eat-dog finish. Mengele's characterization and other odd calculations aside, it's still the trashiest big budget exploitation film ever about the Holocaust. We expect sordid slop from Z-pictures like They Saved Hitler's Brain and The Frozen Dead. It's fairly depressing to think of Simon Wiesenthal trying to scrape up money to chase down real Nazi villains, while The Boys from Brazil rakes in millions by borrowing his image to turn a serious matter into a tawdry exploitation movie. 1
I think my basic complaint against The Boys from Brazil boil down to the old whine, "is nothing sacred?" The bloodied and battered Lieberman and Mengele end up fighting to the death, two old men rolling around the floor, taking gun shots and stab wounds, not to mention being mauled by Doberman Pinschers. Seeing Gregory Peck menaced by mutts is unfortunately more funny than it is frightening, even with the gruesome gore makeup.
Sure, Abraham Lincoln can become a vampire hunter and Quentin Tarantino can show Jewish soldiers machine-gunning Adolf Hitler into hamburger, but those are wild post-modern comedies. Inglorious Basterds especially is about the way movies have teased and exploited our fantasies about WW2. The Boys from Brazil caricatures real living people in a fantasy that trivializes the important things they represent. The real Mengele reportedly was still alive when this movie was released. Could he have seen it, and enjoyed a last laugh at the world's expense? 2
Shout Factory's Blu-ray of The Boys from Brazil is an excellent transfer of this expensive-looking conspiracy thriller. Colors are much better than the old broadcast copies, and the widescreen compositions are an improvement as well. Camerman Henri Decaë's images are uniformly attractive, making the most of locations filmed all over Europe. Of major note to soundtrack fans is Jerry Goldsmith's slick score, with its ironic waltz. I'm not sure it's all that appropriate to this movie, but it sounds great against the big scenes. Correspondent "B", who helped correct some mistakes in this review, tells me that original 1978 release prints did not have the film's concluding scene with little Jeremy Black in the darkroom developing photos. Maybe the little creep wants to be a film director, as his commands to the Dobermans are "Action!" (Attention), "Cut!" (Back off) and "Print!" (Kill).
Franklin Schaffner was one of the talented film directors to emerge from live TV in the 1950s, and The Boys from Brazil was his last notable feature. He brought his film to UCLA's film school for a special preview, surely expecting to be honored for his impressive career. The screening was a hot ticket, as most everyone knew and respected Schaffner's Planet of the Apes and Patton. But the UCLA crowd contained individuals that could become pretty nasty over movies they didn't like. During the Q&A that followed Schaffner was reportedly raked over the coals, and accused of the artistic crime of trivializing the Holocaust. His reaction was equally loud and angry, lecturing the 'spoiled brats' that they didn't know what they were talking about and cutting the session short.
See? The show just became twice as interesting.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Boys from Brazil Blu-ray
1. Actually, The Boys from Brazil has more or less the same setup as They Saved Hitler's Brain --- both are about a conspiracy to grow a new Adolf Hitler, or reupholster an old one. Woody Allen spoofed the idea in his Sleeper, when scientists in a Brave New future plan to clone a new dictator from the only remaining part of the old dictator, his nose.
2. Although there were those that wondered if Hitler faked his death, I don't think anybody ever worried that the world might be threatened by a fearsome Führer clone. Yeah, people can be cloned, but it's idiotic to think that all of the experience factors that formed the original could be duplicated. Who knows, in a sequel the 94 new Führers could become crackerjack paperhangers, or terrible but successful painters. And if they can't hold a regular job, they'd make dynamite Adolf Hitler impersonators.
Anybody can dream up tasteless movie ideas, as that's exactly what's kept the industry going for a hundred years. How about a movie with a kickboxing Dutch girl, who dukes it out with members of the Hitler Youth: Anne Frank's Fists of Fury! What's to keep someone from making a movie about, say, Charles Manson? He could break out of jail, round up his loyal gang of killer babes, and take revenge on Vincent Bugliosi. Charlie might be a hit, singing his terrible songs on a Reality Talent Show. Gee, it sounds like a surefire hit to me.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.