The Boys From Brazil
The most fundamental definition of science fiction is fantasy of the border line of becoming reality. Once a trip into outer space was Sci-Fi but within my life time it went from the basis of an impossible story to a routine occurrence. When it first was released back in 1978; ‘The Boys from Brazil’ was a Sci-Fi movie. The central plot thread surrounding the possibility of cloning a human being was so farfetched as to border on the ridiculous. Now after just over thirty years the potential for this process has become real enough to spark serious moral, ethical and legal debates. The film made a reasonable effort to present a feasible scenario may recent advances in fields like epigenetic have complicated the possibility of recreating a human being. Just in case you have never heard of this film the premise is fiendishly simple; clone the DNA of Adolf Hitler to give rise to the fourth Reich. This may seem like a spoiler but once you get into the movie you will realize that the actual plot of resurrecting the most heinous man in history is basically a classic McGuffin. This term coined by Alfred Hitchcock refers to a plot device that is important of the characters but only provides a means to help the actual focus of the story, less important to the enjoyment of the audience than the motivation of the internal character. In this instance the vital part of the plot that brings the action, suspense and drama is the cat and mouse game between the two incredibly well cast leads. The film has met with somewhat mixed reviews but that might be at least in part to not fully appreciating this distinction. With that said this movie is by far one of the better thrillers of the time featuring a platform for a couple of fantastic performances by two of cinema’s greatest actors. Although it doesn’t hold up in the genre of Science fiction is more than qualifies as a classic suspense thriller capable of standing the test of time.
The novel was written by Ira Levin one of the true master of the thriller. He literally burst on the scene with the horror based thriller, ‘Rosemary’s Baby. Levin also delved into the Sci-Fi thriller, much like this, with ‘The Stepford Wives’ which had two film incarnations as did his psychological thriller ‘A Kiss Before Dying.’. Levin worked for the ultimate master of the genre writing a story for ‘Alfred Hitchcock Present’. One thing that all of his works have in common is how relatable the stories are to the people in the audience no matter how implausible the underlying premise might be. Whether it’s dealing with the devil’s spawn or a global plot to resurrect der Führer the story is relatable because of Levin’s exceptional ability to cut through his own premise allowing the story to rest of the buildup and ultimate explosion of understandable emotions. He uses the story as a canvas painting upon it with fear, doubt and the certainty of a zealot to pull the audience in and hold them. Taking on the task of translating this page turner to the screen was Heywood Gould. He has significant experience with television crime dramas as a writer for ‘The Equalizer’. Admittedly the screenplay is not as compelling as the novel but the power and impact of Levin’s book comes through. What does elevate this film quite a bit is its masterful direction by Franklin J. Schaffner. He helmed the first ‘Planet of the Apes’ and brought home the Academy Award for his direction of ‘Patton’. He has the proven talent to simmer a story, let it come to an emotional peak just as the audience is full on the edge of their seats. His directorial style is conducive to nurturing great actors urging them to go to the very pinnacle of their considerable command of their craft.
The film starts with an inquisitive young man, Barry Kohler played by Steven Guttenberg in his first featured role, making a panicked phone call to world renowned Nazi Hunter, Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), Guttenberg is quickly dispatched but he does manage to get Lieberman wondering and the reports of Nazis up to something in South America. Against his sister Ester’s (Lilli Palmer) better judgment the elderly Nazi hunter goes on the road to track down the young man’s cryptic account. Lieberman uncovers the truth behind a sinister plot. Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck). This monster, known as ‘The angel of Death’ performed unthinkably cruel human experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The real Mengele was twisted but brilliant holding both an M.D. and a PhD fascinated with genetics. This does make this dark historical figure the ideal candidate for this type of conspiracy. The actual cloning of Hitler was only the start of the sinister plot. In order to ensure the not only wind up with the genetic match for their dead leader Mengele wants to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s early life as closely as possible. This entailed giving the 94 clones to low level civil servant. Since his father died when Hitler was a boy Mengele dispatches assassins to kill the men at the appropriate time.
This film provides a showcase for some amazing performances. Laurence Olivier was nominated for an Oscar for his presentation here following on the heels of another Academy Award nod for an opposite part in Marathon Man. There is something special about the control and nuances infused into a performance by a classically trained Shakespearean actor such Sir Laurence. He breathes life into this role with a dynamic energy that is enthralling to watch. To see him play opposite one of the United States greatest actors, Gregory Peck, is more than passive viewing, it is an active experience. Peck is playing what he called the only completely unsympathetic character in his illustrious career. Portraying Mengele is the polar opposite of Peck’s Academy Award winning role as Atticus Finch in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. The range this man possessed as an actor was nothing short of miraculous. In one scene Mengele spots one of his Nazi hit men at a party instead of out killing a man at just the right, predetermined movement. Peck explodes, going from calm, almost gentlemanly to a fury the fills the screen in the space of a heartbeat. As you watch this scene take note of how Peck completely transforms every aspect of his affect from subtle facial muscles to his entire body tightening in rage. This film is full of pure acting gems such as this and remains a classic.
The film is a showcase for memorable performances from some of the greatest acting talent ever to stand before a movie camera. Sir Laurence received 13 Academy award nominations, mostly for Best Actor in a Leading Role. In 1949, he won the award in that category for his portrayal of Hamlet, adding to this a special Academy award for his work in bringing Shakespeare’s Henry V to the screen in a lifetime achievement Oscar in 1979. Bringing a little touch of irony to the trivia section for this film, Sir Laurence received one of his nominations for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the 1976 film ‘Marathon Man’, where he portrayed the former Nazi torture. Foreign act of such great ability, he makes the transition from a Nazi commandant for Auschwitz to a man who devoted his life to hunting Nazis ringing them to justice. Some might dismiss this is just a performer doing his job. But when you focus on the nuances of Laurence that brings to these performances, and in the his entire body of work, you will realize the arduous amount psychological and emotional preparation necessary for this audit is to bring these characters to life. Even more amazing is that so Laurence was recovering from surgery to remove kidney stones just prior to the beginning of principal photography.
With so many classic films being remastered in high definition of was amazed when I realized this cinematic treasure was still only available in DVD. Now, Cinedigm, a distributor that has been providing film buffs with Blu-ray editions of many of their favorites, has finally gotten around to ‘The Boys from Brazil’. I have seen this movie so many times just about every conceivable format from Greenwich Village Movie Theater to VHS and eventually DVD. The move up to 1080p video and DTS 5.1 audio is remarkable. The no matter how many times I see an old favorite refreshed the Blu-ray is still takes me aback when I realize just how many details. I missed it all of my previous viewings. Blu-ray provides access to such an amazing level of details that you will find yourself immersed in so many previously unrealized nuances creating a novel experience even for a fan who has watched this movie numerous times will recapture the feel of a premier.
Posted 01/28/11 01/04/2015