Monday, July 1, 2013

Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and "The Boys from Brazil"

When a young man learns of a secret meeting of Nazi war criminals in modern-day Paraguay, he contacts veteran Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier). Lieberman's response is less than enthusiastic: "It may be a blinding revelation to you that there are Nazis in Paraguay, but I assure you it's no news to me."

However, when a second phone call is abruptly cut off and the young man disappears, Lieberman's suspicions grow. Between the two phone calls and a package of photos from the assumed-dead man, the elderly Nazi hunter knows only this: Nazi "butcher" Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) is at the center of a mysterious plot that requires ninety-four men, aged 65, to be murdered on or near the same date. All of the would-be victims are "minor authority figures" such as postmasters, tax collectors, etc. They are all married to women significantly younger than them.

Laurence Olivier as Lieberman and
Lilli Palmer as his sister.
When Lieberman and a colleague compare notes after visiting the homes of two of the widows, they uncover a striking oddity. Each family has only one child, a male, age 13 and with black hair--and the boys look and act alike.

The Boys from Brazil was based on the bestselling 1976 novel by Ira Levin, the acclaimed novelist/playwright who wrote Rosemary's Baby, The Stepford Wives, and Deathtrap. Although there are broad thematic connections between The Stepford Wives and The Boys from Brazil, the latter plays out as a straightforward mystery (i.e., what is Mengele up to?) before sharing its revelation en route to a suspenseful climax.

Peck as Josef Mengele.
The plot moves almost fast enough to disguise two major flaws. First, with very few resources at their disposal, Lieberman and his sister cull through a tremendous amount of data and somehow discover a handful of the assassination targets. Given the number of men globally who fit Mengele's criteria, it's an incredulous feat. Secondly, during the climax, Lieberman and Mengele arrive at the same home in Pennsylvanian Amish country--at the same time! It's a convenient coincidence, to say the least, but probably a necessary one if Lieberman and Mengele are going to have a showdown.

The casting of Hollywood greats Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck delivers mixed results. As the Jewish Lieberman (based on the real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal), Olivier creates an unlikely, effective hero: a sly, cranky, sometimes humorous old man steadfast in his pursuit of Nazi criminals despite dwindling resources and interest. It's a performance that earned Olivier an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

In contrast, Gregory Peck struggles with portraying a larger-than-life villain. For an actor who was often masterful playing understated characters, he goes over the top in Mengele's big scenes, shouting dialogue emphatically and waving his arms like a fire-and-brimstone evangelist. His extremist villain seems incapable of masterminding a large-scale plot to "fulfill the destiny of the Aryan race." Interestingly, the real-life Josef Mengele allegedly died in South America shortly after the film's release.

James Mason co-stars as one of
Mengele's Nazi colleagues.
In addition to Olivier's Oscar nomination, composer Jerry Goldsmith also earned one for his score. His title theme brilliantly intersperses a grand, flowing waltz with an ominous melody. Thus, his soundtrack underscores the film's theme of potential evil lurking in the most common, unexpected places.

Levin's ingenious premise, Olivier's performance, and Goldsmith's score are three good reasons to watch The Boys from Brazil. Admittedly, it's hard to watch a talented actor like Peck struggle and it's equally difficult to overlook some of the coincidences that drive the plot. But, in the end--just as in The Boys from Brazil--the good (reasons to watch) triumphs over the bad (reasons not to watch).


  1. This is a very interesting movie. I think James Mason delivers the most grounded, credible performance. I went to "An Evening with Gregory Peck" back in 1997. He said he basically did the movie so he could act with Olivier -- he admitted it was not the best fit but had fun with it.

  2. Right on the nose regarding Gregory Peck -- I just love him, and it was not a good part for him. I can understand that he wanted to act with Olivier, though! Reminds me of Michael Caine, who acts in anything for a good enough reason -- I heard he did Jaws 4(?) so he could buy his mother a house!

    I thought Olivier was excellent, Lilli Palmer as well. It was hard to see him so frail, wasn't it? Frail maybe, but always the consummate actor. Nice piece, Rick!

  3. Atticus Finch should have never played a Nazi...I'm just saying.

  4. Gregory Peck is nothing less than bizarre as Josef Mengele. I can understand wanting to work with Olivier and try something new, but he was at his best when sticking to type. Great review.

  5. I saw this film in the theater when it came out, and it really creeped me out. There were a number of coincidences that probably helped the PR for this film. Simon Wiesenthal was looking for Martin Bormann, and Mengele had been sighted in South America. When I saw the film Sir Laurence reminded me of Wiesenthal. Gregory Peck looked out of place as a Nazi, especially since I had just seen him in a film where he played a Jewish man who was being discriminated against. But he managed to scare the wits out of me. But the thing that really stuck out was Mengele' age, and his jet black hair. That was not believe able for me. He looked like he lost a battle with black shoe polish.

  6. We were just talking about this at work!

    It's on my Netflix Q now