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Movie Review: The Boys from Brazil – Laurence Olivier Centenary

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The Boys from Brazil is a guilty pleasure, a film that revels in its ridiculous plot and over the top performances to such a degree that you can’t help being swept along for the ride. Based on a novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives) this is a B picture with an A-list cast.

Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele is alive and well and living in Paraguay but he’s not content. He hatches a secret plan (I won’t spoil the surprise revelation for those who haven’t seen the film) for a Fourth Reich. With the help of a Nazi underground movement he puts his plan into operation, a scheme that requires the deaths of 94 men aged 65 over a period of years. The only man who can stop this from happening is Ezra Lieberman, an old Jew who’s devoted his life to bringing war criminals to justice.

As Lieberman, Olivier has moments of true brilliance but at others he’s almost a caricature of a Jewish man, I don’t think he actually says “oy vey” but he may as well have. There are times though when it’s easy to see why he was Oscar nominated for such an unlikely film; when he interviews Nazi nurse Frieda Maloney in prison there is a level of emotion that feels real and in his final confrontation with Mengele his hatred in palpable (although the idea of him putting up much of a fight against the hulking Gregory Peck is absurd). Not vintage Olivier definitely, but even in his seventies he could still hold an audience's attention.

If you were drawing up a wish list of actors to play an infamous German war criminal I doubt Gregory Peck would make the grade, yet someone clearly thought he was right for the part. On the plus side, he does cut an intimidating figure in his white suit with dyed black hair and moustache; in fact it was a photo of Peck that originally made me want to see the film many years ago, he looked that menacing. Sadly his performance isn’t as successful as his appearance; his attempt at a “Grrrman” accent is laughable. It would have been nice to see what Peck could have done with a villainous role that better suited his talents as there are moments here that almost work — his scene with Olivier at the film's climax being a case in point. In fact Olivier was the reason Peck originally accepted the role as he wanted to work with the veteran actor.

The rest of the cast is filled with familiar faces from both sides of the Atlantic – James Mason as another Nazi, Steve Guttenberg as the young Jew who finds Mengele, Lilli Palmer as Lieberman’s sister  plus Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris (now famous as Spider-Man’s Aunt May), Bruno Ganz (who would later play Hitler in Downfall), Michael Gough, and Prunella Scales. It’s a good cast, though only Guttenberg gets much to do and James Mason is criminally wasted (although his German accent is only slightly better than Peck’s).

At his peak Franklin J. Schaffner directed some all-time classics, Planet of the Apes and Patton just to name a couple, but he was coming to the end of his career by the time he made The Boys from Brazil. He does a workmanlike job, managing to take the outlandish plot and dodgy accents and create a film that for all its faults is still strangely compelling.

It’s not the sort of film that’s going to make anyone’s top ten list but I doubt I’m alone in having a soft spot for it. Peck as Mengele makes this essential viewing for curiosity value alone.

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About Ian Woolstencroft