Novelist Ira Levin came up with some of the kickiest thriller plots of his era, providing the source material for the films Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and The Stepford Wives (1972), as well as for this picture. Levin’s book The Boys from Brazil blended the sci-fi concept of human cloning with themes related to the World War II Holocaust into an entertainingly paranoid fantasy, and an impressive roster of actors and behind-the-camera talents translated the book into one of the great cinematic guilty pleasures of the late ’70s. The movie version of The Boys from Brazil is almost impossible to take seriously, especially because the leading performances are so over the top as to border on camp, but the picture unspools at a ferocious speed while stacking thrills atop thrills. It’s pure escapism. That is, so long as one sets aside the question of whether it was in good taste to predicate a popcorn movie on the murders of six million Jews. (Although, to be fair, The Boys from Brazil can be viewed as a revenge fantasy against one of the Third Reich’s worst real-life monsters.)
Anyway, the story begins in Paraguay, where a resourceful young American Jew, Barry Kohler (Steve Guttenberg), tracks down several Nazi war criminals living in exile and stumbles across a conference during which infamous Nazi surgeon Joseph Mengele (Gregory Peck) outlines a plan to murder nearly 100 seemingly innocuous 65-year-old men living throughout the world. Barry transmits his initial findings to Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), an aging Nazi hunter based in Austria, who is initially skeptical. Meanwhile, Mengele discovers Barry’s spying and has the young man killed, initiating a cat-and-mouse game—can Mengele execute his evil scheme before Lieberman brings the notorious “Angel of Death” to justice? The Boys from Brazil is an old-fashioned potboiler with a modern-age twist, because it turns out Mengele’s scheme—stop if you don’t already know the details—involves “activating” dozens of clones made from Adolf Hitler’s DNA.
As directed by Franklin J. Schaffner with his customary elegance, The Boys from Brazil is simultaneously goofier and smarter than the average thriller. The premise is outlandish and Levin’s plotting is mechanical, but individual scenes are sharp and the escalation of tension from start to finish is terrific. Regular Schaffner collaborator Jerry Goldmsith deserves ample credit for jacking up the excitement level with his vivacious music, and cinematographer Henri Decaé lends epic scope with evocative location photography from around the globe. Yet on many levels this one’s about the acting, because the star power in the leading roles is formidable.
It’s a hoot to see Olivier play the inverse of his character in Marathon Man (1976), which featured the actor as an insane Nazi. Olivier’s acting is way too broad in The Boys from Brazil, from the thick accent to the comical eye rolls, but he’s inarguably fun to watch. Similarly, it’s wild to see beloved leading man Peck play an out-and-out monster. Peck succumbs to the same excesses as his co-star, employing an overdone accent and exaggerated facial expressions, but he too is highly entertaining. Supporting actors lend zest, from the exuberant Guttenberg to cameo players including Denholm Elliot, Bruno Ganz, Uta Hagen, and Rosemary Harris. Plus, the always-watchable James Mason has a tasty featured role as Mengele’s pissy colleague.
The Boys from Brazil: GROOVY