Monday, July 28, 2008

The Boys From Brazil

“The Boys from Brazil” (1978) is a terrific thriller, feature a pair of powerhouse performances courtesy Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier. Add the great James Mason to the mix, and it’s triple the enjoyment. I caught it on TCM a few weeks ago, and liked it so much I went out and bought the DVD. I had forgotten how good it was.

No need to go into the story, based on a novel by Ira Levin, but I think everyone knows that The Boys from Brazil refers to Hitler clones. Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), a real character, is among the refugee Nazis in South America busy hatching a diabolical scheme for a Fourth Reich using the clones. Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier), an elderly Nazi hunter, gets wind of the scheme and tries to put a stop to it.

I remember when the movie came out and critics and audiences were pretty evenly split on the lead performances. Some thought Peck was laughably miscast as Mengele, while others thought the casting of good guy, All-American Peck in such a role was chilling and effective.

I can remember Peck appearing on “The Tonight Show” one night and pulling out clips of reviews from his pants, quoting the raves his performance had received from some critics. Apparently the barbs he took did not sit well with him.

For myself, I think Peck is quite good in the role. Not great, but better than I would have thought. It’s as amoral a role he ever played. Mengele was one of the great monsters of the 20th century, and Peck wisely does not try to humanize him.

Some found Olivier’s performance as Lieberman to be embarrassing and one-note, accusing him of doing an Albert Basserman impression. Others found him brilliant, and the Academy awarded him a Best Actor nomination that year.

I think Olivier is absolutely dazzling in the role. By turns warm and sarcastic, cynical and caring, aloof and tender, this is multi-dimensional character. It’s one of my all-time favorite Olivier performances. He lost the Best Actor Oscar to Jon Voight that year for “Coming Home.” I would have given it to Olivier, or Gary Busey for the wonderful “The Buddy Holly Story.”

Critics who didn’t like the movie made jokes about Peck and Olivier during their final fight scene, but let’s face it, the characters are old men, and they’re not going to be throwing each other across the room like Sean Connery and Robert Shaw. I have no problems with the scene as it plays out.

There’s some eerie imagery on display here. Mengele is not above genetically experimenting on the locals in his jungle compound, and the sight of those brown skinned, blue-eyed natives is chilling without being over the top. One of my favorite scenes occurs when Mengele returns to his old laboratory and he flashes back to his cloning experiments. No dialogue here, but the chilling operation scenes and the scenes of the mothers in the maternity ward are greatly helped by Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous music.

I love the score to “The Boys from Brazil.” Love it, love it, love it. The main waltz is one of Goldsmith’s great themes. It’s like another character in the movie. About 15 years ago I saw Goldsmith conduct the Milwaukee Symphony in a concert of his music and they played the waltz as part of a suite. It was wonderful to hear this music live. What a thrill that was.

(For my birthday following my initial viewing of the movie, my dad surprised me with the LP recording of the soundtrack, because he knew how much I liked the music. There aren’t many fathers who would have encouraged their son’s strange listening habits.)

Goldsmith’s score was nominated for an Oscar that year. but lost. So did John Williams’ score to “Superman.” Who did they lose to, but Giorgio Moroder for “Midnight Express.” In full disclosure, I’ve never seen that film or heard the score, so maybe it is a masterpiece. But I sure thought “Superman” was going to take the Best Score Oscar that year.

I can vividly remember the first time I saw the film. It seems like it was only yesterday.

My dad and I went to see the film on a Friday night at the Dolton, the second-run theater in my home town where I spent a large portion of my youth. It was the second show of the evening, and we were standing in the lobby waiting for the first show to let out. The doors opened as the end credits were rolling and we could hear that glorious Goldsmith score. I liked it the minute I heard it, and I couldn’t wait for the movie to start so I could hear it again.

Coming out of the theater with her family was Mary, a pretty, freckle-faced cute-as-can-be girl I had gone to grammar school and junior high with. We were going to separate high schools at the time, but I still saw her when she would come into the grocery store where I was working. We said hello to each other and she said it was a real good movie, that I would like it.

I saw her at the store the next week and agreed that yes, it was a terrific movie, my dad and I liked it a lot. Of course I wanted to tell her how much I liked the music but I learned very early on that there are some things –i.e. film scores – that you don’t discuss with girls. Still, I always wondered what she thought of the score to “The Boys from Brazil.” She probably didn’t even notice it. Her loss.

Rating for “The Boys from Brazil”: Three and a half stars.


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