IRA LEVIN – The Boys from Brazil. Random House, hardcover, 1976. Dell, paperback, 1977. Reprinted several times since.

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. 20th Century Fox, 1978. Gregory Peck (Dr. Josef Mengele), Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steven Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, John Dehner, John Rubinstein, Anne Meara, Jeremy Black. Based on the book by Ira Levin. Director: Franklin J. Schaffner.

   What makes Ira Levin’s The Boys from Brazil such a compelling read is that it seamlessly situates a compelling mystery within the context of an international thriller and blends it with elements of science fiction and horror. Although nominally a story about a Nazi hunter investigating a postwar plot initiated by Dr. Josef Mengele in which the sadistic doctor has targeted some ninety-four civil servants and middle class men for murder, Levin’s work also incorporates aspects found more commonly in the paperback medical thrillers that flooded the market in the 1970s.

   Given Mengele’s notoriety for experimenting on twins in Auschwitz, it’s no surprise that the key to the plot involves his desire to utilize his scientific training to promote his vision of a pure Aryan race. But how? That’s for Yakov Liebermann (played by Laurence Olivier in the film as Ezra Liebermann) to find out. A Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor living in Vienna, Liebermann has built his reputation on his ability to find Nazis hiding in plain, or not so plain, sight and have them extradited for trial. Among them is Frieda Maloney, a former camp guard who later became an American citizen. As in any good thriller, Levin makes sure that seemingly unrelated stories intersect in a meaningful way. For Maloney’s work at an adoption agency in New York ends up being what allows Liebermann to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

   As the title of the work indicates, there are boys – children – and they are from Brazil. But they aren’t just any ordinary children. Here’s where the creepiness of medical horror and science fiction enter into the story. Without giving too much away, let me just say that what Liebermann discovers is both horrifying and somewhat ludicrous. But that doesn’t stop The Boys from Brazil from being a deeply original work, one that clearly was meant both to entertain and to raise provocative questions about the nature of evil and how it might manifest itself in one’s very genes.

   The film adaptation of Levin’s work, while nominated for several Academy Awards, benefits greatly from Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Mengele but alternatively suffers from Sir Laurence Olivier’s role as Liebermann. Apparently enough people found it Oscar worthy. I didn’t. From his faux German or Yiddish accent to his over-animated mannerisms, Olivier is clearly acting in a manner that prevented me from fully seeing his screen time as anything other than a performance. Peck became Mengele. Olivier was simply unable to disappear into the role. I thought the same thing when I watched him portray a cantor in The Jazz Singer (1980).

   There are some good moments, but overall the film, apart from a memorable score from Jerry Goldsmith, is rather lackluster. It certainly doesn’t hold up nearly as well as Marathon Man (1976), in which Olivier played a Nazi fugitive from South America who has traveled to Manhattan to claim his diamonds.

   But do look for a young Steve Guttenberg (billed as Steven Guttenberg) in a supporting role as an intrepid Jewish political activist who travels to Paraguay to track down and to photograph Nazi war criminals hiding there. I watched a copy on BluRay from Shout Factory. It looks great.