Posts Tagged ‘Ira Levin’

Every now and then one comes across something which is a coincidence, or a sign that there are things going on in the world which one would not have expected: to wit, someone in the scheduling department at a high-numbers TV channel having either a fairly black sense of humour or fringe political views. These are the only two possible explanations for the decision to show Franklin J Schaffner’s 1978 movie The Boys from Brazil on April 20th; for this is a movie about Nazism and the date is the most significant one on any observant Nazi’s calendar. I enjoy a dubious gag as much as anyone, and probably more than most, but I find I am still crossing my fingers and hoping this was a coincidence.

Based on one of Ira Levin’s pulpy shockers, The Boys from Brazil is Lew Grade and ITC Entertainment’s answer to The Omen, which came out a couple of years earlier. One should add the important proviso that in this case the answer is close but not quite right, but at least the film-makers’ working-out is fairly obvious: take a somewhat ludicrous conspiracy thriller, prominently featuring ominous children, add Gregory Peck, various other distinguished actors, and a lavish budget, season with a little spectacular gore here and there, and away you go.

Did I say distinguished actors? One of the first well-known faces to make an appearance is that of Steve Guttenberg, who was still a semi-serious actor at this point in time (he was only 20). Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, a young Jewish Nazi-hunter who as the story starts is monitoring the activities of various war criminals in Paraguay (James Mason and various character actors play the roles of the Nazis; Portugal plays the role of Paraguay). Who should turn up to preside over the get-together but Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), Auschwitz’s own Angel of Death? (Yeah, yeah, I know; we’re going to talk about this, I promise.) Mengele is here to launch the next stage of a project which has been long in the works, and dispatches a squad of ruthless Nazi killers to assassinate 94 men across Europe and America; all of them are 65-year-old civil servants of different kinds (and, based on the ones we see, most of them are other well-known character actors: there’s Michael Gough, not to mention Richard Marner from Allo Allo! and Alternative 3).

Well, it turns out that Steve Guttenberg is not yet old or famous enough to make it out of the opening section of the film in one piece, and so he passes on his notes to a more distinguished Nazi hunter who provides the necessary investigating and moral outrage for the rest of the film. Yes, it’s Lord Olivier, not exactly underplaying it as relentless sleuth Ezra Lieberman (Larry seems to be practising for his Razzie Award-winning turn in The Jazz Singer), who persuades an old friend in the media (Denholm Elliott, another of those cameos that these ITC movies tend to be stuffed with) to send him details of any 65-year-old men who meet an untimely death in Europe or America. Verily, the mind doth boggle, but I suppose things were like that in the days before search engines. Credulity is stretched to its absolute limit as this actually leads Olivier to the families of three of Peck’s victims, who seem to have little in common beyond their ages, jobs, much younger wives, and freakishly identical adopted teenage sons – hang on just a cotton-picking minute here…!

There’s probably a productive discussion to be had about which is in more dubious taste, The Omen or The Boys from Brazil – I suppose it depends on whether you’re more prone to be offended by theological horror or real-world extremism. Beyond-hope materialist that I am, I’m always inclined to dismiss the various Omen films as knockabout camp of varying quality, whereas this one, for all that I do find it rather enjoyable, is arguably well over the border and into the realms of the deeply questionable. I’ve written in the past about the mini-boom in the mid-to-late 1970s for films and TV episodes concerning some kind of Nazi revival, usually centred on a resuscitated Hitler, and on that level there’s nothing particularly unusual about Boys from Brazil‘s scheme to bring back the Fuhrer. What really topples the film over into the realms of the arguably suspect is the decision to make the antagonist Mengele himself. Mengele, it is worth considering, was a real historical figure, responsible for appalling atrocities carried out in the name of science, and – and here it is only right to switch into italics – he was still alive when this movie was made. He could potentially have seen this film; God knows what he would have made of it. Regardless, turning him into a supervillain for a slightly cartoony thriller is arguably a horrible misstep, regardless of what kind of performance Gregory Peck gives (suffice to say that Peck, like Olivier, appears to have carved himself off a thick slice of ham).

The odd thing is that for an arguably nasty schlock horror-thriller, The Boys from Brazil has got some interesting ideas going on under the surface. Whatever else you want to say about it, this was one of the first mainstream movies to be based on the premise of human cloning, which may be why the sequence explaining what cloning – or ‘mononuclear reproduction’ – is goes into such detail. (It is perhaps slightly ironic that the role of the scientist who has to explain the origin of the film’s legion of cloned Hitlers is given to Bruno Ganz, who later played the dictator in Downfall.) The film even has some interesting notions about the whole nature versus nurture debate: the plot is predicated on the idea that the second-generation Hitlers won’t automatically grow up with the same sparkling personality and interesting political views as their progenitor, and so Mengele is attempting to recreate the circumstances of Hitler’s own life and family background. It makes marginally more sense than your typical SF film about clones, I suppose, as duplicates normally grow up indistinguishable from the original without any intervention whatsoever (that, or they’re irredeemably evil) – but how exactly is this going to work? How is Mengele going to give the Hitler clones the experience of fighting in and losing the First World War when they hit their late twenties? What’s the objective here? Wouldn’t it be easier just to have a dozen or so young Hitlers and have them specially educated – indoctrinated, if you like – in secret, for whatever role Mengele and his associates have in mind? Unless the idea is for a crop of new young extremist demagogues from ordinary backgrounds to appear and revolutionise the politics of the west in the early 21st century? Won’t people notice they all look the same? Especially if any of them decides that a moustache would be a good look…

Of course, this is not the only Levin tale with a plot that doesn’t really stand up to serious scrutiny, and as usual the film keeps it together, mainly thanks to the febrile outrageousness of its ideas, put across with a mostly straight face. This is a preposterous story, not just because of the cloning idea but also the contrivances required to make it function, but Peck and Olivier really go for it. One could regret the fact that the film doesn’t explore some of the more intriguing ideas arising from its premise as much as it could – are the clones really destined to become as monstrously evil as their forebear? To what extent can they be held morally culpable for the original Hitler’s actions? – and there is no genuine doubt that this is a Bad Movie, and a bad movie in really suspect taste, too. But nevertheless, I kind of enjoy it for its sheer demented conviction, the fact it makes so many barely-credible errors of judgement, and – more seriously – the way it does manage to smuggle high-concept SF ideas into an apparently mainstream thriller. This film is surely a guilty pleasure at best, but the pleasure is as genuine as the guilt.

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It is a widely remarked-upon fact that, for one of the great storytellers of the modern age, Stephen King’s success rate when it comes to film adaptations of his work is not enviable. There is, of course, The Shawshank Redemption to consider in the plus column, but apart from this, the quantity of dodgy or frankly substandard King adaptations in circulation is formidable. This is thrown into sharp relief when one considers the startling run of form enjoyed by a horror writer from an earlier generation, Ira Levin.

King has written around fifty novels, of which about half a dozen have been made into genuinely good, memorable films. Levin, on the other hand, wrote only seven novels, but their screen versions include at least two classics, and several other very decent stabs (also the Sharon Stone potboiler Sliver, but you can’t have everything), amongst them Rosemary’s Baby, The Boys from Brazil, and the film I’m going to write about now, Bryan Forbes’ 1975 version of The Stepford Wives.

This is a film which has entered the popular lexicon despite, I was surprised to learn, not being a notable hit on its original release. Certainly the numerous sequels (and execrable 2004 remake) would seem to indicate that this is a film which has made an impact in the popular imagination. Writing about the remake, I found myself going to enormous lengths to avoid spoiling the original film’s central twist – I don’t think I can do the same writing about the original itself, so caveat lector.

Joanna and Walter Eberhart (Katharine Ross and Peter Masterson) are a fairly typical, affluent couple, in the process of moving out of New York City to the quiet country town of Stepford. (It is, of course, something of a genre movie trope that whenever people from the city move to, or even just visit, the peaceful and beautiful countryside, unutterably horrible things are sure to happen to them before very much time has elapsed.)

Stepford is very pleasant, but Joanna is uneasy: Walter joins the Men’s Association and spends all his time there, while she and her kooky new best friend Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) are simultaneously disturbed and frustrated by the behaviour of the women of the town. They all seem to aspire to be domestic goddesses of the first rank, spending all their time cleaning, cooking, baking and gardening, utterly devoted to their husbands and seemingly utterly heedless of their own happiness and fulfilment. Joanna and Bobbie try to introduce Women’s Lib to Stepford, but their first meeting quickly turns into an exchange of good housekeeping tips.

Events take a more sinister turn when Joanna and Bobbie notice that women who move to Stepford abruptly start conforming to the local stereotype after a few months in town, abandoning their previous interests and becoming vapid, obsessive home-makers. It even happens to Bobbie, leaving Joanna alone and increasingly frightened. Is she just imagining the sinister influence she sees everywhere in town? Or her own time running out as well?

It seems very strange to think that The Stepford Wives was criticised on its original release for somehow being a chauvinistic, anti-feminist picture. For this interpretation to work you would really have to be rooting for the men and eagerly anticipating Ross and Prentiss getting their just desserts – and the film doesn’t work this way at all. There’s barely a single sympathetic male character in it – Walter is weak, while the leader of the Men’s Association, played by Patrick O’Neal, is cold and sinister (and frankly a barely two-dimensional character). The two women are the characters you’re rooting for – this is very far from being a chauvinist film; to call it a feminist diatribe would probably be closer to the mark.

It’s also another one of the great exercises in cinematic paranoia – not unlike Rosemary’s Baby in some ways, but it seems to me that this film has much more in common with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in that both share the same small-town setting and a preoccupation with the loss of identity. Invasion of the Body Snatchers treats this broadly, as a general political issue, but with The Stepford Wives the politics are sexual. Certainly it works as a paranoid horror-fable much more convincingly than it does as a plausible drama – the plot falls to pieces as soon as you breathe on it, to say nothing of the fact that it requires every noteworthy man in town to be some kind of high-functioning psychopath.

The film is really about the male desire not just to possess women, but to make possessions out of them, regardless of their own identity as individuals – the film doesn’t handle this especially subtly, giving Ross’ character a prominently arty photographic hobby mainly so she can later make a speech about how ‘There’ll be somebody with my name, and she’ll cook and clean like crazy, but she won’t take pictures, and she won’t be me!’ But, if nothing else, the film does include a brilliant final scene in which the wives of Stepford glide serenely up and down the aisles of the supermarket in a strange ballet of the trolleys, and the sense that this is a film with as much to say about consumerism as the first Dawn of the Dead is almost inescapable.

For a horror film – which is what The Stepford Wives really fundamentally is – it’s a strangely charming and beguiling confection, to begin with at least. The sunny setting in conventional suburbia is well realised. The pace is, shall we say, rather languorous to begin with – a modern editor would probably be able to chop fifteen or twenty minutes from the movie without much difficulty – but this allows plenty of time for the slow accretion of tiny details that suggest that something very strange is occurring without beating the audience about the head with it.  And Katharine Ross, an actress with an enviable record in the late 60s and early 70s, is very good in the lead role.

Well, well: I seem to have got to the end of the review without spoiling the plot of The Stepford Wives after all, which I’m rather glad about. The idea at the heart of this film is a bit too grotesque and outlandish for it to really be credible as a proper piece of SF, but it’s still the driver for a very accomplished and affecting movie, and one not without chills in the right places. If it has entered the public consciousness, then it’s done so on merit.

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