*. Author Ira Levin had a macabre sense of humour. His horror fantasies are all a bit ridiculous, balancing on the edge of camp and absurdity. Great adaptations of his work (like Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby) find the sweet spot. Bad ones (any of the Stepford Wives movies) flounder trying to find the right tone.
*. And The Boys from Brazil? It may be his wildest premise of all, which is clearing a high bar indeed. The science of cloning I can get on board with — and in the last forty years it’s become even more believable — but why would a cabal of Nazis want to clone Hitler anyway? Sentimental reasons? Even Hitler didn’t see himself as some perfect genetic speciment of the master race.
*. But while the science of cloning may pass muster, the idea that the clones need to be brought up in the same way as young Adolf is a leap too far. A boy growing up in the U.S. in the 1970s will have nothing experientially in common with a boy growing up in Austria in the early 1900s, no matter what age his father dies. Then should they be encouraging young Adolf in any artistic aspirations he might have? Or discouraging him? How about higher education? Nothing post-secondary, surely. You can see how crazy this all is. But Mengele is crazy isn’t he?
*. Then there is the globe-spanning conspiracy of ex- and neo-Nazis who seem to have not only evaded justice but have reconstituted an incredibly powerful alternative state that reaches everywhere while barely trying to conceal its existence. Where did they get all the money to fund this operation? Selling stolen art?
*. I’m not even sure how the logistics of Lieberman tracking down the families of every 65-year-old man in the world who has died recently is supposed to work. But somehow he’s up to the task.
*. So the basic premise is bonkers. And it gets a further nudge from the heavyweight cast, who seem to have gleefully tossed decorum and their own reputations to the wind in hamming things up. Though apparently that’s not what they thought they were doing. In an interview he did when the film came out, James Mason said that, while he had not read Levin’s book, “one could hardly be alive and employed in the acting profession and not know that The Boys from Brazil had two stupendous leading roles in it. Oscar material. And of course, always trying to improve my position, I was hoping one of them would fall in my lap.”
*. Neither of the stupendous leading roles fell into Mason’s lap so he became a largely superfluous Nazi functionary who tries to put the brakes on Mengele’s scheme. He was right, however, in seeing the leads as Oscar bait, as Olivier would go on to get a nomination for Best Actor.
*. Olivier’s performance usually gets a lot of praise (Kael thought him “the only reason to see this movie”), while Gregory Peck is just as often ridiculed for his Mengele. I think they are both ridiculous but captivating caricatures. They go with the whacky plot, which even climaxes with the best geezer fight until Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee went at it in The Fellowship of the Ring.
*. Peck’s Mengele in particular just misses out on being one of the great screen villains of all time. With his thin eyebrows and equally silly moustache, blackened hair and whitened face, his mask-like appearance reminds me of nothing so much as Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Throw in a brilliant white suit, preposterous accent, over-the-top emoting, a few classic lines (“I am a doctor, idiot!”), and you have one of the most unforgettable camp grotesques ever.
*. Like a lot of great bad movies everything is dialed up to 11. Jerry Goldsmith’s waltzy score blares out even when nothing is happening. When the Nazis discover that their meeting is being bugged they trash the entire place looking for it, even smashing the dishes! Why? And when you want to kill someone, you could just garrotte them in their home (does Michael Gough even have any lines?) or you can throw them from the top of the brand-new Kölnbrein Dam in Austria (standing in for Sweden). Absolutely ridiculous, but who’ll deny that’s one of the most spectacular movie kills you’ve ever witnessed? I feel like I’ve missed something never seeing it on a big screen.
*. So it’s a great bad movie. Is Jeremy Black terrible? Hell, yes. And yet I find I can’t help but be fascinated by him. Only Franklin Schaffner’s direction, which is without any sense of style or imagination, holds The Boys from Brazil back from being a true cult/camp/trash classic. As it is, however, it’s still something special.