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Casting can make or break a movie, but it's the rare piece of casting that can do both to the same film, depending on the viewer. Gregory Peck's borderline bizarre turn as Nazi butcher Josef Mengele is the most compelling reason to watch The Boys from Brazil (1978), because you'll either feel you're staring straight into the face of evil, or you'll be sitting slack-jawed at the wrong-headedness of the entire undertaking. There's really no middle ground when an actor as beloved as Peck decides to clone Adolf Hitler, especially since Peck appears to have de-aged himself by rubbing black Kiwi shoe polish into his hair. One reviewer wrote that he's "made up to look like a cross between a banana republic dictator and a rodent."
Based on Ira Levin's best-selling novel, The Boys from Brazil concerns itself with the fictional post-War activities of Mengele, who in real life was alive and hiding in Sao Paolo, Brazil when the film was produced. Mengele, of course, was the sadistic physician who performed unfathomably hideous experiments on thousands of unwilling subjects who were under his "care" at Auschwitz. (In one of the 20th century's cruelest twists of fate, The Angel of Death was never captured and tried for his horrendous crimes.)
In Levin's story, Mengele is being pursued by an aging Nazi-hunter named Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier, who had just finished portraying a Mengele-like character in Marathon Man, 1976). Mengele's...um...rather outrageous goal, is to raise hundreds of Hitler clones in the same type of social environment where the Fuhrer grew up. This, he hopes, will generate another little Hitler, who will eventually re-start the Wermacht and achieve world domination. Lieberman wants to capture Mengele before this happens, although you might think it would be easier to simply sit back and let the ridiculous plot fail.
Although James Mason is solid as one of Mengele's assistants, the moments featuring Peck and Olivier together crackle with the excitement of two legends knowingly chewing the scenery. Both performers worked extensively on their German accents, not that Olivier needed as much help as Peck did.Dialogue coach Bob Easton worked with Peck for six weeks before they were happy with his speech patterns.
Peck said of Olivier, "He was gallant, funny, easy to be with. Not at all intimidating to others." Olivier, for his part, stated that he appreciated Peck's professionalism both in front of and behind the cameras.
It's interesting to note that Peck, who seemed so casual on-screen, regularly brought his work home with him. He carried pictures of Mengele in his wallet for twisted inspiration, and his family got used to his overplaying the doctor around the house for a few dark laughs. He would even bark at his wife to serve him dinner and drinks, at which point she would click her heals and quickly respond to the order. As for the real Mengele, Peck said at the time, "I think we'd welcome him showing up and trying to sue us for libel." Now that would have been a publicity coup!
Producer: Robert Fryer, Stanley O'Toole, Martin Richards
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Screenplay: Ira Levin (novel), Heywood Gould
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Film Editing: Robert Swink
Art Direction: Peter Lamont, Julian Mateos
Music: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Gregory Peck (Dr. Josef Mengele), Laurence Olivier (Ezra Lieberman), James Mason (Eduard Seibert), Lilli Palmer (Esther Lieberman), Uta Hagen (Frieda Maloney), Steve Guttenberg (Barry Kohler).
by Paul Tatara