A Left-Handed Form of Human Endeavour

A collection of musings about the second golden age of movies.

The Boys From Brazil (1978, Franklin J. Schaffner) - SPOILERS

One of the merits of The Boys From Brazil is that it remains one of the very few watchable films churned out by Sir Lew Grade in the seventies. Lew, now no longer with us, was an old-style entrepreneur whose idea of film production was to spend forty percent of the budget on stars, forty percent on locations and then excavate a script and keep a director awake for long enough to get something halfway acceptable in the can. How else can we explain The Cassandra Crossing - in which Martin Sheen gets plague and Lee Strasberg keeps getting concentration camp tremors - or Escape To Athena - in which Sonny Bono plays a Greek partisan and Roger Moore is a nice Nazi. Both of those were directed by George P. Cosmatos, whose amusing surname is an indicator of the interest level of his films (Rambo and Tombstone honourably excepted). However, more talented film makers were known to take the Grade shilling, none more illustrious than Franklin J. Schaffner, maker of Patton and Planet of the Apes. Presumably, it was the latter which suggested he might be a good choice for a fast paced, SF thriller based on a
bestseller by Ira Levin.

The Boys From Brazil has a marvellous premise, which isn’t particularly believable but is handled - in the novel - with great verve so that it seems possible. On screen, however, it just seems rather silly. We begin in Paraguay, where an obnoxious Jewish boy, played by the then mercifully unknown Steve Guttenberg, discovers that Dr Josef Mengele is bringing together some of his Nazi associates to carry out a particularly heinous plan. This involves the deaths, over a three month period, of 94 elderly men, all of them civil servants and all with younger wives and one teenage son. What could they be planning, wonders Steve, who promptly rings up ageing Nazi Hunter Ezra Lieberman - not Simon Weisenthal, oh no - to inform him of his discoveries. Lieberman dismisses him as an obsessive crank, and ignores what he hears, until the phone suddenly goes dead and he senses the presence of “great evil” on the other end of the line. In fact, the phone in Paraguay has been picked up by Josef Mengele himself, after Guttenberg has met a welcome painful demise, thus preparing us for a mighty clash of the titans. Hammy Gregory Peck versus hammy Laurence Olivier.

It should be pointed out that Gregory Peck is not only miscast, he is completely out of his element. Playing Mengele, he never once convinces you of the evil soul of the man - instead, he has all the terrifying presence of a sheep in sheep’s clothing. The film portrays Mengele as a mad scientist, but Peck can’t bring off the ranting and he ends up seeming ludicrous. The part begs to be played by someone who can make evil seem dangerously attractive and who can rant convincingly - Peck isn’t cut out for it, and tends to look like he’s wandered into the wrong film in fancy dress. Olivier, on the other hand, is so well cast that he’s rather irritating. We get the same mittel-Europe accent we got in Dracula and The Seven Per Cent Solution, with a touch of his Colonel Sanders patriarch in The Betsy. He witters on, waving his arms about in patented lovable old fool mannerisms, and rolls his eyes so often he appears to be signalling a friend in the back row of the audience. However, and this is the difference between an efficient and highly professional actor like Peck and a great actor like Olivier, when called upon, Lieberman suddenly develops into a real presence, scarily intense, hard as nails and utterly ruthless. In one scene, the Nazi hunter meets a nurse from Auschwitz who has been involved in the plan. Olivier begins by looking frail, but the director concentrates on his face, and suddenly the film jumps to life. You see the bitterness, the anger and the effect of thirty years of the hunt. This doddery old geriatric has a core of steel, and you can see it all in his eyes. The delivery of the key line, “And you are not…going…anywhere” is inspired. This scene is great and it transcends the second rate melodrama that surrounds it. The film never recovers the dramatic intensity of this five minute scene. Olivier is very good at these short bursts of compelling confrontation - there’s a great scene between Van Helsing and the Count in Dracula, where he uses his eyes in similar fashion, and the best bits of The Betsy are when he gets his teeth into his pathetic son, Robert Duvall.

Anyway, back to the plot. At extreme length, the conspiracy is uncovered. Mengele, assisted by Nazi aristocrat James Mason - who is so bored he decides to use a comedy accent - has developed a technique to clone Hitler 94 times. Each clone child has been placed in the exact same domestic environment that Hitler experienced, and their adoptive father must die when they are 14, just as Hitler’s did. Whether or not this is scientific I don’t know, but it’s more interesting than the facile assumption that a clone would automatically turn out to develop in exactly the same way with no other outside assistance. Lieberman must, therefore, get to Mengele before Mengele succeeds in the plan. All is going as expected, until Mason reveals that the funding has been pulled and the plan has been called off. Mengele therefore decides to go for broke and execute the plan himself, using one of the clones placed in New England. Everything comes to a nasty end, after Olivier and Peck have had their big confrontation scene, with Mengele being ripped to pieces by some vicious dogs.

I’ve missed out a lot of the travelogue details that pad out the film, although there is one rather effective scene with horror stalwart Michael Gough being killed, after his lodger - the reliably pneumatic Linda Hayden, has had her throat slit in a rather surprisingly bloody manner. The supporting cast is good enough - nice to see Walter Gotell in something other than a Bond movie, and Lilli Palmer is great as Lieberman’s exasperated sister. But it’s all so slow, and the dialogue tends to consist of great whopping chunks of exposition as the characters walk around an expensive location. Schaffner pulls off individual scenes with some class, but his pacing is desperately off, and he never creates any real threat or tension. One problem is that the boy, Jeremy Black, who plays the clones that we meet - four of them, one with an appalling British accent - is not a very good actor, and is never convincing as any of them. The other is that the music score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is so good that it tends to upstage what’s going on upfront.

Perhaps another difficulty is that the film tries to be serious about Nazi atrocities while at the same time using them as titillation. There’s a particularly unpleasant surgery scene which has no other purpose than to be a bit of bloody sleaze. I have no real problem with Nazi-ploitation, but I don’t like it being accompanied by a high moral tone. This story is basically pulp, and not a serious document about the revival of Nazism, but Schaffner directs it as though it was completely serious. Also, and a bad sign, there’s a blackboard science session, something which I usually take as a cue to stop paying attention; see also Back To The Future 2 and Torn Curtain. This extended scene is meant to explain the plot, but it just slows the film up and gives yet more opportunity for Olivier to play his befuddled number.

Having said that, the film is mildly compelling and often very watchable. It looks fabulous and the cast gives enough indication that they know that the material is very silly to make it amusing rather than embarrassing. But that sense of horror, which should surely be at the heart of the story, is completely absent and the brief shock sequences look like they have been interpolated from another film entirely - and one which is probably a lot more interesting.

One Response to The Boys From Brazil (1978, Franklin J. Schaffner) - SPOILERS »»


  1. Comment by John Hodson | 2008/03/29 at 12:07:25

    Excellent Mike; good to see you back.

    It’s the score, I think, Goldsmith’s fabulous ‘waltz of death’ that really saves the film. The boy really is the big problem isn’t he, his scenes set my teeth on edge, but Olivier makes up for him.

    I have no problems with the daftness of the premise. I *like* a daft premise and few can put one over like Levin (IIRC, the film is quite faithful to the novel), but I’d snap up an anamorphic DVD in a heartbeat. The upcoming HD release is almost enough to turn me to Blu-ray.

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