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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.