The Boys from Brazil March 27, 2018
Franklin J. Schaffner
2 Hrs., 5 Mins.
or more than a decade, the novelist Ira Levin was one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities. From the late 1960s to the early ‘80s, adaptations of his works were dependable cash cows. Thanks to the successes of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Stepford Wives (1975), Levin’s name became synonymous with prestigious, critically acclaimed pulp that often allegorized hot-button issues. His stories acted as the foundation of horror movies for the elite.
But the writer, like any artiste with an inclination for creating artful trash à
la Brian De Palma or Michael Crichton, was still capable of making pulp more chintzy than accidentally cinematically august. Cue The Boys From Brazil, Levin’s ridiculous 1976 novel that was translated into an equally absurd 1978 feature starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, and James Mason.
Without knowing anything about the film’s storyline, we might be wont to expect this movie to be poised to live up to the standards of its murderer’s row of talents – based off a bestselling book, headlined by the biggest names of the Hollywood Golden Age, given a big budget, promotionally aligned with the anxiety thrillers so popular at the time.
But then The Boys from Brazil’s intentions are made clear, and never does it recover from the expected deadfalls that come out of the woodwork when you’re working with a narrative this overambitious and cockamamie. Get this: in the film, it is discovered that a Nazi war criminal (Peck) is in the middle stages of a years-in-the-making evil plot in which he has successfully cloned Adolf Hitler 94 times and will ultimately reinstate the Third Reich’s dominance.
Huh? The man, a fictionalized version of the Angel of Death himself, Josef Mengele, will explain. See, a decade or so ago, he implanted zygotes containing Hitler’s DNA in selected surrogate mothers, who then gave up their offspring for adoption. The children were placed in orphanages around the globe, and, through a careful process, have been put into living situations that unnervingly mimic Hitler’s own upbringing. (Never mind the World War I backdrop or German nationalist values.) Once they come of age, they will band together and continue doing Hitler’s dirty work. How they will come to know about one another, and how they will come to hold fascist and scientifically racist views, is not explained.
But that needn’t matter: For the rest of the film, we watch as the aging Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) tries to stop Mengele and his flagitious fleet of war criminals. The film is more concerned with dramatically unfolding as any conspiracy thriller might than it is with making sense.
If you find yourself wondering if The Boys from Brazil ever manages to overcome its implausibilities and somehow makes high art in the ways Roman Polanski did with Baby and Bryan Forbes with Stepford, the fair answer is that it doesn’t. This is a film built on improbability that refuses to recognize its plot holes and does nothing mind-blowing except take itself seriously. It is a particularly lame potboiler, an exploitation movie given a big budget and big stars who treat the material as if it were written by Ibsen. (Although it is fun to watch Olivier and Peck have an act-off: how rare it is to see Peck essentially play a lip-smacking Bond villain.) Part of the reason why Baby and Stepford made such an impression had to do with their taking gimmicky premises and making something uncanny and perceptive out of them. The Boys from Brazil is just gimmicky. And insipid.
And would, unfortunately, kick off the beginning of the end of Levin’s Hollywood ascendancy. The next Levin adaptation, 1982’s Deathtrap, would receive slightly better critical notices, but would start a decline that would render him a has-been before the ‘90s could even begin. Comeback movies A Kiss Before Dying (1991) and Sliver (1993) turned him into a laughing stock.
Cinema is all the better for movies like Baby and Stepford. So products like The Boys from Brazil signify that no creator so well-revered can turn everything they touch into gold. But then again, when would a “what if we cloned Hitler?” movie ever be good? D+