Skip to main content

Now listen, I don’t give diddley shit about Jews and Nazis.

 

The Boys from Brazil
(1978)

(SPOILERS) Nazis, Nazis everywhere! The Boys from Brazil has one distinct advantage over its fascist-antagonist predecessor Marathon Man; it has no delusions that it is anything other than garish, crass pulp fiction. John Schlesinger attempted to dress his Dustin Hoffman-starrer up with an art-house veneer and in so doing succeeded in emphasising how ridiculous it was in the wrong way. On the other hand, Schlesinger at least brought a demonstrable skill set to the table. For all its faults, Marathon Man moves, and is highly entertaining. The Boys from Brazil is hampered by Franklin J Schaffner’s sluggish literalism. Where that was fine for an Oscar-strewn biopic (Patton), or keeping one foot on the ground with material that might easily have induced derision (Planet of the Apes), here the eccentric-but-catchy conceit ensures The Boys from Brazil veers unfavourably into the territory of farce played straight.

Mengele: You’re the living duplicate of the greatest man in history.

Because Ira Levin’s novel has an irresistibly absurd premise. Not so much the cloning – there are plenty who will tell you, perhaps most famously Donald Campbell, it’s alive and well and abundant in underground bases and amongst celebs and politicians, as much as there are those who suggest it’s one of science’s many deceit-conceits, and that any such apparently misfiring clones are either doubles and/or those with their MKUltra programming breaking down – but the minutiae of setting up the mystery.

Levin begins with an inscrutable poser; why are men of about 65 across nine different countries earmarked to be murdered over the next two and a half years? The answer is a nice little nature-nurture riff, for clones of Herr Hitler have been furnished with as similar as possible environmental conditions to ensure they grow up to be fully Fuhrer-capable, which means daddy issues (although, taken to its logical conclusion, one would surely be required to muster a handy world war, a home country in dire straits and need of rehabilitation, and some very dapper uniforms).

Levin previously showed a shrewd grasp for the punchy and commercially becoming with Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, so it’s no wonder this was snapped up as ideal Hollywood fodder. Unfortunately, the snapper was the transatlantic Lew Grade, he of the more-miss-than-hit film empire and latterly Raise the Titanic. Levin taps in to the deranged science of The Stepford Wives in order to explore genetic engineering at its most horrendous – at one point, Schaffner even has a character deliver a lecture on the subject with the help of film reels and a white board – but most especially, he explores the Hitler mythos. After all, he’d already done the devil’s child, and this was the next logical progression (The Boys from Brazil also, in Jeremy Black, found a far more convincing child psychopath than the two-years-prior The Omen).

There’s no need to interrogate the actual terrain of World War II and the rise of National Socialism – see the works of Anthony Sutton for a peek into the philosophy and financing of such excursions – when you have a made-to-measure bogeyman – or men – assuaging any doubts over motive. So too, the double-header of the equally invidious Josef Mengele personified as a white-caked Gregory Peck surveying his Dr Moreau-ish Paraguayan retreat and confirming every dreadful report about the man and more.

This kind of extravagance, legitimised by acting legends like Sir Larry, James Mason and (well, slightly less so) Peck is, in a way, doing the same thing as Marathon Man: inviting the fiction to run parallel with the official history and underpin it (in contrast, the forbidden nature of questioning the official history, running as it does in this case risk of censure, fine or imprisonment, should in itself make one deeply uneasy). It’s only really with Spielberg and his slapstick Nazis that Hollywood gets the true measure of the simplistic view encouraged, nay demanded, of us (of course, he would then recant to sombre and universal acclaim with the less cartoonish but more lurid and manipulative Schindler’s List).

Spielberg, in the “innocence” of his youth, knew to have fun with his Nazis, but there’s precious little sense of vim and energy to Schaffner’s film, as relentlessly schlocky as it is. I suspect that is, in part, because Schaffner has no facility for the absurd, less still for the thriller. After all, he was earlier responsible for a Best Picture Oscar nominee so inert it makes the average Sir Dickie biopic look like a thrill ride (Nicholas and Alexandra).

Olivier knows the kind of movie he’s in, and has a bit of fun with aging Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman. And as pilloried as his performance was in some quarters (Pauline Kael), Peck – replacing George C Scott – is also decent ham value in a picture Time Out’s David Pirie observed boasted “more phoney German accents than a prep school version of Colditz”. Perhaps a hungry young wunderkind would have serviced The Boys from Brazil with the lack of respect it deserved (Brett Ratner pre-fall from lack of grace, had been attached to a remake, which would have been exactly what it didn’t need, given his it’ll-do Red Dragon).

There really ought to be twinkle in the filmic eye after delivering a gratuitously gory finale – Lew Grade blanched at it, but Schaffner had final cut – in which Mengele is cathartically savaged by young Hitler’s kill-crazy Dobermans, and yet Lieberman is unwavering that the boy – even the boy Hitler – is not the man, in answer to Steven Moffat’s philosophical favourite “Would you Kill Hitler as a child?” He is thus the personification of forward moral thinking. Unlike David Bennett (Crazy Like a Fox’s John Rubinstein), who wants to do for every little young adult ubermensch running about the place pulling the wings off butterflies as a warm-up act. But you know what? It looks like Bennett was right, as the last shot leaves us under no doubt that having done for Mengele has left young Bobby Hitler with a powerfully sadistic leaning (pouring over piccies he took of death by Pincher). Well, more than the one he already had.

Brazil should be tense, taut, thrilling, but alas, it rarely picks up any momentum. Early on, there’s some urgency as twelve-year-old Steve Guttenberg scopes out Josef and listens in on his meet cute. There are individually strong scenes, but the climactic confrontation between Mengele and Liberman isn’t all that, depicting them rolling around on the carpet biting and scratching at each other. 1976 offered evil Larry and good Greg; this time it’s reversed, but their separate vehicles then (Marathon Man and The Omen) are both markedly superior.

Still, there’s a potent encounter between Lieberman and a very up-for-it Frau Doring (Rosemary Harris, later Aunt May), adjusting her skirt in come-hither fashion as Lieberman probes her about her recently-offed husband. Mason’s Colonel Seibert can barely conceal his delight when he informs Mengele, whom he evidently considers to be a nut, that the entire operation has been terminated. There’s also a particularly striking – because it’s so grim – murder sequence in which Sky du Mont beds Linda Hayden’s lodger, slits her throat and then hangs her landlord Michael Gough from the ceiling fan while wife Prunella Scales obliviously makes dinner downstairs.

Indeed, you can’t fault the casting, which also includes Denholm Elliot, Ben Stiller’s mum Anne Meara, Bruno Ganz (he has to give Sir Larry the lecture, and manages to make it look almost natural) and Walter Gottell (Gogol in the Bond series). A scene where the latter throws an old comrade off a dam after the latter urges him to follow orders and kill the man he has been told to – not realising it is him – is quite nicely done too.

The Boys from Brazil has the inclination of a big movie, but it’s then-fashionable propensity for uncensored gore and nudity is at odds with its old-school production style. And then there’s the concern that it’s maybe delivering both too much and too little. The Fourth Reich in South America is little more than a couple of full-dress fundraisers, so there’s absolutely no chance we’ll be following Mengele to his base in Antarctica (if indeed, Antarctica is the Antarctica we are told it is).

Mengele: You are infinitely different. Infinitely superior.

Perhaps surprisingly, The Boys from Brazil received three Oscar nominations (including Sir Larry and for Jerry Goldsmith’s score), although this was a point where even more overt fantasy (Star Wars) was being considered for the top prize. The movie made money, but not shed loads, reflecting its rather limited pedigree. It should have been ideal popcorn fodder, feeding as it did into thirty years of “What happened next?” lore. Instead, it’s mostly big, broad and banal.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef