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Gregory Peck as the Bad Guy? Impossible! ….. The Boys From Brazil (1978)

After 34 years and 47 motion pictures to his name, Gregory Peck joined the ranks of Hollywood Royalty like Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West) to finally go bad on screen. Not just bad but downright evil. Sure he played a few misguided characters like Ahab or his vigilante rider in The Bravados but there is a world of difference between that vengeful cowboy and playing one of WW2’s most reviled Nazis.

Decked out in white suit with hair and mustache died coal black, Peck stars here as Dr. Josef Mengele.

peck as mengele

I’ve chosen to feature this once in a career role by an actor know by many to be the wise and fatherly Atticus Finch as part of the villain blogathon hosted by three ladies I had the good fortune to meet and get to know at the recent TCM Film Festival in Hollywood. Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows and Satin along with Kristina of Speakeasy.

This Franklin J. Schaffner directed thriller comes from the Ira Levin novel of the same name. It mixes real life characters with a “what if” premise that Peck and his Nazi Party members hope will lead to the rise of the Reich once again and the Aryan Race in the 1970’s and beyond. Over the first half of the film a mystery begins to unfold when Peck orders the deaths of 94 men in various countries around the world.

boys from brazil poster

A young Steve Guttenberg has been listening in and taking photographs of the gathered Nazi’s in the hopes of getting Laurence Olivier’s aging Nazi hunter to join him in Paraguay and expose them as war criminals in hiding. He captures just enough of their secret conversations on tape to intrigue Olivier before Peck is on to him and has him murdered. “I do not want a trace of this vermin to remain.” Seconds later Peck smiles at a small house boy who knew of Guttenberg’s infiltrating the Nazi hideaway and quietly says to a minion, “Kill him.”

It’s a scene that chillingly recalls Fonda’s shooting down a small child in the Leone classic.

olivier boys from brazil

Olivier’s Nazi hunter, while not named Simon Wiesenthal is clearly patterned after the real life individual and begins probing into the leads that came his way via the murdered Guttenberg. This causes worry among Peck’s superiors represented here on screen by James Mason. In order for Peck’s self proclaimed “scientific miracle” to be a reality, he must have the assassinations of the 94 seemingly innocent men around the globe carried out.

Thankfully we are not subjected to that many deaths on screen though a few are tossed in to get the point across of just how far Peck’s brigade is willing to go to ensure the rise of the Reich. This includes a hit and run, a man thrown from the heights of a damn and even Michael Gough’s death by apparent suicide.

peck and mason

Commander Mason is worried that Olivier’s digging has gotten to close to the truth of Peck’s experiment’s and calls back his assassins which includes Walter Gotell. This allows a scene in the film demonstrating Peck’s evil desire for his mission’s success. Unbeknownst that Gotell has been recalled, Peck viciously attacks him as a traitor before being dragged off him. When Gotell’s wife protests, Peck in full anger mode exclaims, “Shut up you ugly bitch!”

Perhaps not the highlight of the film but when looking at the career of Peck, it’s a shocker to see him so vicious and rude to the fairer sex.

Just in case you haven’t seen this film, I’ll stop now with the plot points as I’d rather not ruin just what Peck has in store for the world thanks to his demented ideas and the apparent fruition of his experiments.

I will say that his final scene opposite Olivier is both bloody and quite enjoyable as Peck cuts loose with his ravings and desires of a world once again dominated by Nazis.

boysfrombrazil4

I for one love Peck’s evil turn in this film that came at a time when Nazi themed films were very prevalent at the movie theaters. Movie fare such as The Marathon Man and The Odessa File. While it was Olivier who garnered an Oscar nomination here I think Peck easily overshadows him though I will admit that Olivier is great as he comes to realize just what Peck has in store for the world.

Joining in the film are old pros like Denholm Elliott, Lilli Palmer and John Dehner. Bruno Ganz also turns up as a scientist helping Oliver in his search for the truth. Ganz would go on to play Adolf Hitler in the amazing film Downfall that I would highly recommend.

palmer in boys from brazil

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the film includes an awesome score by Jerry Goldsmith that also received an Oscar nomination and with Peck on board it almost reminds me of Goldsmith’s work on The Omen just two years prior to this.

Though I admit to not liking every detail of this film and the playing of one central part I haven’t divulged, I do love the core of the film that is Peck, Olivier and the heart of the terrifying truth that Olivier seeks to reveal and Peck hopes to prove a success.

The Boys From Brazil is easily available on DVD or blu ray, so if you haven’t seen it I urge you to give it a shot. If you have and it’s been a while, go back and watch Peck come unwound and chew up the script like he’d never done before.

the-boys-from-brazil7

For a look at my two previous contributions to the yearly celebration of villains via this wonderful blogathon, check out my takes on Eli Wallach in The Magnificent Seven and Ernest Borgnine in Emperor of the North.

Now it’s time to follow this link to the many writers participating in this years round up of the villains that have the power to make a decent film good and a good film great.

 

31 Comments »

  1. A total fave that works as a comedy if you’re in the right mood. I also love that Olivier got the chance to play a not so ex-Nazi in Marathon Man, meaning both films are a PERFECT double feature.

  2. For some reason I’ve never much liked this movie. I dunno why. I liked the Ira Levin source novel, much as I did his Rosemary’s Baby (great movie!), The Stepford Wives (a good movie and an okay one!), A Kiss Before Dying (a quite tremendous movie, plus a perfectly respectable one!); the only novel of his that I’ve felt to be a total stinker, Sliver, generated a stinker of a movie. It may perhaps be that you can get away with stuff in a novel that just looks silly in the much more condensed form of a movie.

    • I know it’s not a classic but Peck and Olivier make it interesting as does the material for me anyway. Perhaps it’s one of those times when the movie can’t live up to a readers expectations as happens so often when a movie is released to the chagrin of book readers.

  3. Watched this movie, in my teens, somewhere in the 90’s. I remember enjoying. I ought to chk it out again.
    I found it really interesting meeting fellow bloggers, that would have been fun, to put a face to fellow writers/critic’s 🙂

  4. Good pick as the more heroic their screen persona, the more uncomfortable it is to see them cast as a villain, and this one’s over the top. Thanks for joining in!

  5. I saw this a few years ago and it took several minutes for the shock to wear off from seeing Atticus Finch as a bad guy. Wait – not just a bad guy but a guy who’s pure evil.

    Like you said, this is not a perfect film, but it’s worth seeing for Peck and Olivier – and Guttenberg, too, who does a really good job.

    Great choice for the blogathon, Mike. Thanks for coming to the party!

  6. I had completely forgotten Peck played Mengele in this. I of course remembered Olivier and his better portrayal of a old Jewish man (much better than his turn as one in The Jazz Singer. Haven’t seen this movie in years. Which explains why I can remember Olivier and even Guttenberg, but forgot Peck. Which could be the best thing to say after all. His performance as Mengele was so on taget that he may have convinced me it really was Mengele…

  7. Love when great stars take a chance and play against type. This is a great example. Love Ira Levin’s ingenious plot twists in this, but the film lacks the suspense and gravitasse of the far superior Marathon Man. Some of the performances here border on camp – not Peck’s, though his makeup and hair are a bit heavy handed – Olivier is given too much screen time and begins to overact and chew the scenery….FUN to watch, though, and Guttenberg is fresh-faced and holds his own against all the old heavyweights.
    Love your blog!!
    -Chris

  8. I saw this film many years ago and really liked it then, but had forgotten Gregory Peck was the villain in it. You did a great job of pointing out some of the ways in which evil is personified in his character. I would like to see it again. I think I would appreciate it even more now.

  9. I don’t know why this movie has never been on my radar. I mean, with a cast like that. You’ve convinced me I need to check it out, if anything to see Peck go to the dark side.

  10. Casting Gregory as Mengele was an unusual step, but he is such a wonderful actor that he made his villain believable. I could envision perfectly Peck’s and Olivier’s roles changed, but Gregory is just outstanding. That’s talent and versatility, for sure!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le
    http://www.criticaretro.blogspot.com

    • I guess you could have switched them. Interesting and perhaps mroe so if Olivier hadn’t just done the Marathon Man.
      Nice bit on Jack lemmon in Great Race. I used to watch that one all the time as a kid when it would turn up on TV. Nice cast in there. Too bad Jack didn’t turn up in Jaunty Jalopies sequel with Tony again.

  11. Being part of this blogging marathon I got to read about a lot of movies I have never seen and for some reason I want to watch all these movies starting today… Gonna make a list and watch.

  12. Thank you Mike. I really enjoy The Boys From Brazil, The score is wonderful and the performances believable. I am a lifelong Olivier fan but Gregory Peck really impressed me as the morally bankrupt Menagle. The book is very much worth reading.

    • Never to late to ready an old book so maybe I’ll pick it up. As for Olivier I keep meaning to rewatch Sleuth and introduce it to my two sons…. might be a good one on Father’s Day when they usually let me pick a title. Happens less now that they are no longer kids…. so I always cherish the moments when they come.

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