In 1978 I was a college student majoring in film studies, as well as a mid-lapse Catholic, so the ripples of flabbergasted embarrassment I could conjure over the enjoyment of mainstream studio-sanctioned trash, to say nothing of the nagging sense that I should have instead been watching a Truffaut or a Fassbinder movie, or poring over my required-reading text on Eisensteinian montage, were never far from the surface. But I no longer have much use for the idea of the guilty pleasure—I could scarcely be less concerned at this point about the shame of having my lowbrow tastes uncovered and exposed. My transition from goofy kid to only-slightly-less-goofy adult has made it much easier to accept the often intellectually indefensible notion that I likes what I likes.
I’m not entirely sure what we were expecting, but I know that when my best friend and I skipped our college classes to see The Boys from Brazil (1978) for the first time, we were somewhat nonplussed at how tacky the whole thing seemed to be, and how carelessly over-the-top were the performances of Laurence Olivier, as Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman, loosely based on real-life counterpart Simon Wiesenthal, and Gregory Peck, wooden and lacquered to the hilt as Dr. Josef Mengele, on the loose with a plan to clone 94 copies of Adolf Hitler from the original’s DNA. Yet I seem to recall that a good portion of the reviews I read at the time (Pauline Kael’s being a notable exception) were at the very least respectful of its origins as a well-reviewed best-seller written by Ira Levin, and were certainly not as fazed by its obvious histrionic flaws. How could you watch this big-budget production, with its slickly packaged international cast, loony aplomb and utter absence of style and élan, and not be even slightly amazed at how cracked it all was?
Yet my friend and I went back to see the movie at least one more time in the theater, drawn to its treasure trove of found humor and odd bits of business. By the time The Boys from Brazil premiered on Showtime the following year, where it ran several times a week, it had entered our pantheon of personal favorites, bits of dialogue and stiff line readings working their way into the code of our everyday conversation—if I asked something of my pal, my request might be nonsensically greeted by Lieberman’s indignant response to an arrogant ex-prison camp official: “You are not a guard now, madam! You are a prisoner!”
And so it went, over countless viewings since then, up until this very day. Whenever I revisit this essential text of my early days as a student of film (in case your attention is already wandering, I’m not referring to the aforementioned book on how the great Russian director cut film), I marvel at how closely I seem to know its rhythms and its tones—it looks stodgy, but to me it moves at a clip. I marvel too at how each well-familiar line reading, the ones delivered by Peck and Olivier, of course, but even phonetically assembled ones from special guest stars like Bruno Ganz, peal like missives from a distant world where movies like this are still made and audiences for them still exist. The Boys from Brazil is one of those movies that, for me, has made the transition from object of amused derision to one of genuine appreciation. I love this movie, guilt-free.
It is mere speculation to consider the degree of cynicism with which Olivier, Peck, James Mason and director Franklin J. Schaffner (in 1978 on the downhill side of a long career that had its roots in the earliest days of television) approached Levin’s book, and the delightfully pulpy screenplay that Heywood Gould created from it. Schaffner had made his Hollywood hay with big-budget, big box-office pictures like Planet of the Apes, Patton and Papillon, movies that, in their style of production at least, don’t suggest much more than a workmanlike approach to filmmaking, and it seems unlikely that he would be unappreciative of the opportunity to keep working.
The same can probably be said of Peck, who was in his mid ‘60s when the movie was made and may have been wondering just how many more roles this juicy he could expect late in his acting career. And of course, Olivier had already been establishing a reputation for taking the money—his spry performance in the adaptation of Harold Robbins’ potboiler The Betsy had hit screens only a few months prior to the release of The Boys from Brazil. But even if their work in TBFB is bad—and I no longer think that it is—the professionalism of all involved can hardly be denied.
Schaffner’s direction may look a trifle boxy and uninspired at first glance— even in his most acclaimed films he was never a wizard with the camera. But the efficiency with which the central set pieces of TBFB are directed—Mengele’s first meeting with his cast of assassins; Lieberman’s interrogation of the prison camp guard Freida Moloney (Uta Hagen); even the necessary but unavoidably lumpy scene where Ganz’s biologist explains to Leiberman the fundamentals of cloning—suggest that Schaffner’s sense of how to sharpen the dramatic focus of a scene through pacing, editing and unobtrusive camerawork was fully engaged in this movie. Certainly, he maximizes the suspense in the final, long confrontation between Mengele, Leiberman and Bobby, one of the Hitler clones, through the relative calm of his directorial perspective, even when the performances and the writing suggest that delirium might have been an equally effective approach.
Olivier, perhaps beginning to feel the physical limitations of his age, instead makes the most (perhaps too much at times) of his voice, his Austrian accent flitting and looping and curling around his dialogue, imbuing it with the sort of devil-may-care conviction that speaks more to joy in the process itself than to any conviction (or lack thereof) in the material itself. The almost pixie-like cadences he gives to Leiberman constitute his most outra-a-a-geous accent since his work as a French-Canadian woodsman in Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel (a performance that I’m sure John Cleese loved). But a soft-spoken Olivier can still shred the scenery, and the fun he has doing it is apparent. I was surprised when he was awarded an Oscar nomination in 1978 for this performance, but nearly 40 years later his is the only one of the five nominees (the others were Robert De Niro, Jon Voight, Gary Busey and Warren Beatty) that I think on with fondness, and certainly the only one I ever pine to revisit.
But for all the memorable moments Olivier delivers in The Boys from Brazil— he even does an excellent Chewbacca impersonation (Check it out if you don’t believe me—it comes near the end as little Bobby helps him off the couch after Mengele’s death)—one of my favorites comes last. Lieberman lies in a hospital bed, refusing to provide a list of the remaining cloned boys to another Nazi hunter (John Rubenstein) so that the boys might be killed. He pulls out a pack of cigarettes and relates to his more fanatical colleague the assurance of the nurse who provided the smokes. She has told Lieberman that if he could survive the Nazi camps, surely he could survive a single cigarette, so why not have a few puffs. He then lights a cigarette, along with the paper on which the boys’ names and addresses are printed, and offers impishly, regarding the nurse’s suggestion, “Wasn’t that a nice thing to say?” The lilt he gives to this line, the movie’s last, provides a nifty, curlicued period on this pulpy sci-fi permutation of Nazi atrocities, anticipating the weightless strains of Jerry Goldsmith’s infectious waltz theme which carries the movie over into the end credits.
The performance I had always thought was way too far over the top was Gregory Peck’s Mengele. And yes, while his gruff German accent does seem to accentuate the traditional knock on Peck being a bit of a stiff customer, I’ve come to appreciate the stillness of Peck’s carriage, the relish with which he launches into his great declarative speeches. The one he delivers to Bobby Wheelock at the end, explaining to the glassy-eyed kid exactly who they both are, is great, but so are his scenes with James Mason, where the potent combination of Mengele’s ego and his indignation at the tight bureaucratic control over his cloning experiments boils over into grandiose actorly bliss. But Peck gets excellent moments of quiet too, like his silent sizing up of a mansion’s wait staff, trying to assess who has bugged the room before settling on a little boy with a grandfatherly smile that cannot quite conceal its sinister purpose, or the delicious way he draws out “Herr Lieberman!” when Olivier enters the Wheelock living room and the two stars meet on screen for the first time.
And as with Olivier, the pleasure I’ve derived over the years hearing and recalling the spin Peck puts on some of his classic lines is immeasurable. I live to hear Peck explaining to one of the young clones impatiently, desperately, that “Your parents are of no consequence, Bobby! They were chosen for you!” Or, in countering delivery of the news that the higher-ups have cancelled the schedule of assassinations necessary to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s childhood, the way Mengele haughtily informs Mason’s SS liaison that “No! Your operation has been cancelled. Mine continues!” I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a performance which cannot be explained away by cynicism or ineptitude or “so bad it’s good” condescension. Peck’s work is grandiose, overscaled, but it’s also a lot of fun and Peck never winks at or condescends to the material. No one else could have delivered the performance he does here, and The Boys from Brazil wouldn’t be the movie I love without it.
This is true as well of the weird, affected, slightly uncomfortable performance of Jeremy Black, who plays three of the titular boys. Much has been made of Black’s colorless presence, his inability to deliver dialogue naturally, the way he seems disconnected from the other actors—being an inexperienced kid might have had something to do with this, not to mention having to wear blue contact lenses for all his scenes. And some of his dialogue, it must be said, would challenge even the likes of Olivier—calling for an ambulance he flatly intones, “Yeah, man, it’s an emergency. A heavy-duty emergency.” But then, it’s not exactly unreasonable for clones of Hitler to seem a little weird to the rest of us, to stand out a little, and on those counts Black does just fine. He has little finesse, but like Peck’s Mengele, a different performance would make it a different film, and I like this movie, Black and all, just fine. (Remake? No, thank you!)
As for the rest of the cast, well, it’s an international character actor’s heaven, even if said actors don’t always get a lot to do. Just look at this roster: the aforementioned James Mason, Bruno Ganz and John Rubenstein, plus John Dehner, Denholm Elliot, Walter Gotell (the go-to Russian baddie of the Moore-era 007 movies), Anne Meara (!), Rosemary Harris, Steve Guttenberg (!!), Uta Hagen, Lilli Palmer, Wolf Kahler (memorable as another Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and, all in one tiny London flat, Hammer vet Michael Gough, Linda Hayden (Blood on Satan’s Claw) and, for good measure, Prunella Scales (Fawlty Towers) to come in and discover Gough and Hayden’s dead bodies. I’m not sure how you could do better than that.
Sometimes we carry memories of movies we once loved that we’re afraid to revisit because of fears that they’ll inevitably fail the test of time, and often that failure comes right on schedule. In the case of The Boys from Brazil, the opposite has proved true. What I once thought of as inept and tacky, albeit enjoyable trash is, all things considered, probably still trash. The difference is, I’m not as inclined to automatically accept that assignation as a negative. I would never make great claims for it, but I can no longer deny just how thoroughly this movie has wormed its way into my heart. The only fear I have left in approaching it is that if I were to right now glimpse so much as a single scene, even after having just watched it again two nights ago, I would have to put aside everything else and watch it all the way through to its delirious finish.
Isn’t that a nice thing to say?