The Boys From Brazil

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THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL—bestseller-churner Ira Levin’s fanciful pulp tale was adapted by Heywood Gould, directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, given a strong cast and a big budget. Previous evil Levin plots Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives scored as movies, Schaffner had impressive credits and the international actor pros seemed a lock. Add Jerry Goldsmith scoring. And some snarling Dobermans. Along with the pedigree setup, and those frightening canines, the kennel door also opened on some curious, bone-gnawing acting that leaves this 1978 thriller too often rather a woofer.

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Aged Nazi-hunter ‘Ezra Lieberman’ (Laurence Olivier) is tipped by a desperate phone call from South America that something dark is afoot with fugitive fiend Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). An assortment of disturbed or disturbing characters in several countries leave the clue-trail strewn with bodies. 125 minutes of sleuthing culminate in a blood-soaked confrontation between implacable foes.

Despite Levin’s title, the film’s Nazis are based in Paraguay, but The Boys From Brazil has a better ring than The Pricks From Paraguay, and neither of those repressive regimes wanted filming in their neck of the Reich, so Portugal substituted. Along with Lisbon doubling for South America, other filming was done near Lancaster in Pennsylvania, in London and Austria (Vienna, Salzburg and in a brief but effective scene, the 660-foot-tall Kölnbrein Dam,a great place to to push a Nazi from).

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Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack nudges things along. He was really being tapped to hit the suspense notes that year, scoring Coma, Magic, The Swarm, Damien: Omen II and The Great Train Robbery. 

The far-fetched plot is clever enough, but the handling feels slack, the photography and direction blunt, and some of the key acting is hard to figure. There’s a solid supporting cast, and they’re mostly on target: James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen (very effective as a former concentration camp ogre, unrepentant and repulsive), Steve Guttenberg (not too good), Denholm Elliott (a walk-on), Rosemary Harris (rings false), John Dehner (strong as ever), future Downfall-fuhrer Bruno Ganz, Anne Meara, Walter Gotell, Wolfgang Preiss. The creepy clone-child is successfully played by 15-year-old Jeremy Black.

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Working against type, in makeup befitting a twisted villain, Peck went to town on arch-vampire Mengele, and most reviewers knocked him: I think he’s both over-the-top entertaining and possibly near the mark considering what a nutcase that sadist was. Olivier is, for my taste, frankly awful here, almost a cartoon parody.  A year before he was quietly frightening as a renegade Nazi in Marathon Man, but here his elderly Viennese Jew (Levin’s character was based on Simon Wiesenthal) is a mass of actor’y tics and vocal mewls that feel more like they belong on The Carol Burnett Show. Mystifyingly, he was nominated as Best Actor at Oscar-time, and the movie also garnered take-these noms for the Music Score and Film Editing. I’d nix all three (and I pretty much worship Goldsmith). One thing that does impress are those scary, superbly trained Doberman’s that pile on when Greg, 61, and Larry, 70 and frail, have their silly battle royale. *

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Reviews were unkind, and even with those undeserved Oscar nominations the movie only made it to 27th place for the year, grossing $19,000,000 in the US; relative to the $12,000,000 cost it was a less than stellar showing.

With John Rubenstein, Michael Gough, Sky du Mont, Linda Hayden, Günter Meisner, Prunella Scales, Wolf Kahler, and Monica Gearson, as the skeletal woman at the party to whom Mengele memorably rumbles “Shut up, you ug-ly bitch!”

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* Peck: “I felt, Laurence Olivier felt, friends of mine like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon felt, that I was good in this part. Some critics seem unwilling to accept actors when they break what they think is the mold or the image.”

After his chilling role in Marathon Man, Olivier’s film work took a decided dive, hammy performances in half-baked projects like The Betsy, Inchon, The Jazz Singer and Clash Of The Titans. Best to remember him for Rebecca, Spartacus, Sleuth and that diabolically patient “Is it safe“?

Franklin J. Schaffner had a strong run before this assignment (Planet Of The Apes, Patton, Nicholas And Alexandra, Papillon, Islands In The Stream), then decidedly ran out of moxie with his remaining output (Sphinx, Yes Giorgio, Lionheart and Welcome Home).

Speaking of dogs,  for some reason, the Doberman breed was given a real workout for a stretch, starting in 1972 with The Doberman Gang, which whelped sequels The Daring Dobermans, The Amazing Dobermans and Alex And The Doberman Gang (don’t rush off to find any of them). They were also used to un-nerve James Garner and Katherine Ross in They Only Kill Their Masters (his autobio comment was “I’d rather not talk about it.”).  A Peck character had recently been mauled by Rottweiler’s in The Omen, so perhaps he felt somewhat prepared for being ripped up by these sleek pups. As someone who once narrowly escaped an attack—a Rottweiler and a German Shepherd at the same time: thank God for pepper spray—for me this fang biz gets too close for comfort. “Oh, Wotan’s just playing..he never bitten anyone”… Sure. And this shotgun’s unloaded, see….

From mutts to swine: Josef Mengele. The unholy bastard was still alive at the time, comfortable in Brazil. He drowned the year after the film came out. He was 67, never brought to justice for his monstrosity.

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5 thoughts on “The Boys From Brazil

  1. Growing up barefoot in Sydney bushland I always had dirty feet. It wasn’t a socio economic thing – it was the bush lifestyle. My mother used to threaten to sell me to Ilse Koch. So at 17 I loved this book and it sent me into the world of books about Nazi Germany. Not a Greg Peck fan but I enjoyed him in this movie and Roman Holiday. Great review!

    • LOL, your mom sounds like a kick. Speaking of books, they’re my Other Thing, too. I worked at Powell’s in Portland for 4 years (89-94), ran a number of sections (Film, Military, asst. histories), and learned a ton. Ever read Max Hastings? Bernard Cornwell? Wllbur Smith? Peck–oh, I like him also in The Big Country, Pork Chop Hill, 12 O’Clock High, How The West Was Won, Old Gringo. He was campy here, for sure, but not nearly as off-the-rez as Larry’O. Cheers, Mark

  2. Hi, Maddy, It’s somewhat of a wank. Neat idea, but its sluggish and some of the acting is bananarama. I preceded watching this with “Black Narcissus” —talk about a contrast in style and quality. Am going to be foofing up the site shortly, long overdue overhaul. All the best, Mark

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