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Case Number 16115: Small Claims Court

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The Boys From Brazil

Lionsgate // 1978 // 127 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // April 10th, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker doesn't think we need a little Hitler right this very minute.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Boys from Brazil (1978) (Blu-ray), published January 9th, 2015, is also available.

The Charge

"Yu ahr nut goink any-vere!"
Laurence Olivier, in his final Oscar-nominated performance

The Case

Ira Levin was a clever writer who hit the jackpot in the '60s with Rosemary's Baby, an outrageously successful blend of modern theological horror and social satire. Most of Levin's books were turned into memorably kitschy films, including A Kiss Before Dying (filmed twice), The Stepford Wives (ditto, sorta), and Sliver.

Both a virtue and a vice in Levin's work was his reliance on plot twists; often, the twist became the plot, and knowing the surprise going in diluted the impact of the book or film.

In 1976, Levin gave us the popular Fourth Reichsploitation potboiler The Boys From Brazil. Somehow, Levin got away with using the atrocities committed by Josef Mengele as fodder for a thriller, and the book was made into a film in 1978. With a cast of old-time actors like Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, James Mason, and Lilli Palmer, young bucks like John Rubinstein and Steve Guttenberg, Oscar winning director Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), and a (surprisingly prescient) medical science fictionary plot about cloning as means of resurrecting the Nazi regime, The Boys From Brazil is entertainingly ridiculous, but somehow not as much fun as it should be.

Looking 17 with a weirdly shiny face, Steve Guttenberg is an amateur Nazi hunter in Paraguay. When most-famous-living Nazi, Josef Mengele (Peck), convenes a meeting of Aryan honchos, Guttenberg's character reports it to his idol, the more seasoned Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier). Unfortunately, the crusty but colorful Lieberman is unimpressed: "Eet mah bay a blynding rewelation to you dat dere are Nassis in Paragway, bud I ashore yu, eet ees nut noose to me!"

Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? Not these guys. His character is graphically and ludicrously killed by a bunch of thuggish neo-Reichers while in mid-phone conversation with his still-unconvinced hero, Lieberman. But just before being shanked, he clues the old hunter into a big secret: 94 65-year-old men all over the world are going to be dying mysterious deaths.

This sends the unfunded, underappreciated Lieberman scrambling for answers as the bellicose and puffy Nazis are merrily winnowing the ranks of retirees by tossing senior citizens under cars and off bridges, dropping heavy things on their heads, and whatever other mayhem they can think up. Why these seemingly disparate sexagenarians have been marked for death is just part of Mengele's grand plan for the Fourth Reich.

Even if you don't already know the secrets of The Boys From Brazil, it's a safe bet you'll figure them out quicker than Lieberman. Even though this quirky old mensch has dedicated his life to hunting down Nazis, and history- and trivia-based hints are flung at him like lifelines on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, he can't quite put it all together. It takes some outlandishly lucky guesses and a jaw-droppingly long and labored sequence with a scientist explaining cloning concepts—and showing Lieberman an instructional film!—for the guy to figure out why he keeps encountering obnoxious 14-year-old boys with straight black hair, piercing blue eyes, and snotty attitudes whose 65-year-old fathers are being mysteriously killed.

Thus is the schizophrenic nature of The Boys From Brazil. It's as though Schaffner and screenwriter Heywood Gould (Cocktail) can't quite figure out where to go with the material. I didn't read the book, but I'm sure that there was more thought put into Lieberman's discoveries; here, he just kind of stumbles across things. The film cuts from Lieberman's investigation to Mengele's problems with his fellow Nazis (including a low-key Mason), to the offing of the 65-year-olds, which must rank as some of the worst "make-it-look-like-an-accident" assassinations in history.

The climactic meeting between Peck and Olivier is in a class of its own and must be seen to be believed. It involves Amish country, Doberman Pinschers, the villain delivering a long expository speech—while holding a gun on his most detested enemy, for cryin' out loud!—and a fight to the death between the two 70-year-old Oscar winners, who punch, kick, and bite each other while rolling on the floor.

While the story often plods, the film is rarely dull thanks to those elder statesmen of the overstatement, Olivier and Peck. It's not every day we see talented actors cut loose like this, exaggerated accents and all. These two seem to forget everything they know about film acting and put it out there for the balcony—or the bleachers.

Olivier's Lieberman—reportedly based on real-life Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal—belongs on the stage rather than the screen. This is a fussy, busy performance, filled with tics and bits of business. It's way too actor-ish to be taken seriously—there doesn't seem to be anything especially substantial beyond the fussiness and quirks—but it's fun in the way it recalls old-school character acting.

Peck didn't often play villains, but evidently he wanted to—badly. I've always found Peck to be a little dull, but here he's having a grand ol' time playing a loon. His Mengele is the maddest of scientists and the foulest of fiends, puttering around his Moreau-esque South American plantation with its foreboding flora and bright blue-eyed zombie fauna. He bellows, he sputters, and at one point, attacks a fellow conspirator at a fancy dress ball, tossing the heartless but hapless chap into a buffet table and strangling him. Of course, this smackdown is a tad one-sided—no Nazi in his reich mind is going to mess with Mengele—and is just a warm up for the endgame grudge match.

My big question is, why are we getting this release? Lionsgate put this out on DVD almost 10 years ago, and I suspect that this is the same edition in a different case. The transfer certainly doesn't look new; it's clear enough, but flat and bland, and the case doesn't claim "remastered." Same with the audio, which is uneven, often with Jerry Goldsmith's bombastic but effective score drowning out dialogue. There are no subtitles, and the only extras are on-screen text bios for Mason, Peck, and Olivier, some fairly lengthy "production notes," and a couple of trailers (only accessible at the end of the production notes segment). The whole disc reeks of 1999.

While The Boys From Brazil isn't exactly crying out for rediscovery via a special edition, it is regarded by many as a classic of camp (or, less charitably, bad filmmaking). Why not play that up? Give us a couple of featurettes or a Steve Guttenberg commentary, or better still, something to put it in context as a classically bad movie. In late 2007, Lionsgate released the even-worse Bluebeard with no extras; why not spiff these up and do a line of camp special editions? When you consider the wretched no-budget, direct-to-video releases from Lionsgate that get solid tech and supplements, you have to wonder why they don't find a marketing hook for films that might actually have an audience.

The Verdict

Even bad movies deserve good releases. Lionsgate drops the ball with this pointless, decade-old double dip. Both Lionsgate and The Boys From Brazil are guilty, but in different ways.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 50

Perp Profile

Studio: Lionsgate
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Bad
• Drama
• Science Fiction
• Suspense

Distinguishing Marks

• Production Notes
• Trailers
• Text Bios


• IMDb

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