Monday, December 28, 2015

The Boys From Brazil

It seems crazy, looking back at THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL, that the Academy nominated it for three Academy Awards. Based on a helluva page-turner by Ira Levin (ROSEMARY’S BABY), this “gripping, suspenseful drama” (per VARIETY) is an absurd conspiracy movie with a plot right outta Spy Smasher comic books. It’s deliciously good fun and features juicy leading roles for major movie stars Gregory Peck (MOBY DICK) and Laurence Olivier (MARATHON MAN), who picked up a Best Actor Oscar nod (film editor Robert Swink and composer Jerry Goldsmith earned the film’s other nominations).

Levin and screenwriter Heywood Gould (FORT APACHE THE BRONX) would have us believe that Nazi doctor Josef Mengele (Peck, playing a rare villain) is alive and well in Paraguay, where he commands a sizable force of Third Reichers ready and willing to do anything to advance their cause. Mengele’s plan involves the assassinations of 94 civil service workers all over the world—all of whom are in their mid-60s with a younger wife and a son approaching his teens.

Mengele, who thinks long-term, created 94 clones of Adolf Hitler twelve years earlier and placed them with families that most closely duplicate the environment in which the real Hitler grew up. Well, of course the odds are in favor of one of them growing up to be the next Fuhrer, or so the bad doctor believes. Aging Nazi-hunter Lieberman (Olivier) discovers Mengele’s fiendish plot, takes it seriously when no one else does (including us), and follows the trail to Europe and finally a bloody farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Gould’s script follows Levin’s best seller closely, including its clunky dialogue (“You whacked-out maniac!”) and plot implausibilities. Peck seems to be having a good time, always clad in a white suit, over-emoting (“Shut up, you ugly bitch!”) and lip-smacking like Ming the Merciless. Never the most expressive of actors, he certainly goes to town here. Olivier, on the other hand, brings a great deal of sensitivity, intensity, warmth, and humor to his part. Neither Olivier nor Peck takes the pulpy material more seriously than it deserves, pitching their performances to the perfect level.

Director Franklin J. Schaffner (PATTON) had no problem luring name actors to sign on to the lunacy (“Who would believe such a preposterous story?” Lieberman asks), though that may be more due to Sir Lew Grade’s checkbook than any love for the material. James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) as a Nazi who chickens out on Mengele’s plan allows us to witness the joy of him trading silly German accents with Peck. Lilli Palmer and Uta Hagen are also along for the ride, as is a young Steve Guttenberg (POLICE ACADEMY), whose amateur sleuthing gets the plot rolling. More painful than funny is the horrible acting by young Jeremy Black, who is embarrassingly bush league, playing the clones. He must have been somebody’s nephew.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL is ridiculous, of course, just like the novel, but its irresistible premise, professional pacing (Schaffner stages an elaborate killing just when you’re itching for one), and enjoyable hambone acting make it easy to swallow. Schaffner and Gould keep Levin’s climax, which is rather low-key by the standards of most thrillers. However, Peck, Olivier, and John Dehner as a racist Doberman trainer play it for black humor, leading to an unconventional close.

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