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Posts Tagged ‘James Mason’

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 andĀ 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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Is there a more richly mythologised period of recent history than the Victorian era? This is the period of time which gave us the Wild West, immortalised in hundreds of movies and novels, but closer to home (for us in the UK) is the concept of Britain as an imperial nation, and the source of hundreds of characters from fiction both literary and pulpy. Indeed, our conception of Victorian Britain is surely largely defined by its presentation in novels and films, with the boundaries between real life and fiction becoming oddly mutable as a result.

Certainly there’s no shortage of more recent metafiction in which these Victorian icons meet, in varying combinations – the champion probably remains Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula, in which Dr Jekyll and Dr Moreau share their notes and Griffin, Moriarty, and Bill Sykes are part of the same criminal syndicate, while Hammer’s remarkable Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde sees the – er- conflicted researcher encountering Burke and Hare the grave-robbers (who have inexplicably relocated from Edinburgh to the East End).

What both these works have in common is that they tie in to the real world, by virtue of including another character who – in a strange way – straddles the boundary between fiction and reality. Anno Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde both present ‘solutions’ to the mystery of Jack the Ripper. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as the Ripper murders are one of the great mysteries of recent times, and TV shows from Kolchak to Babylon 5 have all had a go at ‘solving’ it. Most of these attempts are not intended seriously – but one of the mash-ups was, at least partly, and it remains an interesting film in other ways too.

murderbydecree

Bob Clark’s Murder by Decree was released in 1979 and is set in London at the time of Ripper murders. The police appear to be baffled by the spree of savage killings, which makes it all the more peculiar that they have not followed standard practice in such situations and retained the services of London’s greatest investigator, Sherlock Holmes (here portrayed by Christopher Plummer).

However, a group of Whitechapel businessmen, conscious of the effect the ongoing panic is having on trade in the East End, approach Holmes with an eye to hiring him themselves. With the faithful Doctor Watson (James Mason) at his side, Holmes sets out on the trail of the Ripper, little realising it will lead him to the highest echelons of the British establishment…

Well, if you’ve seen From Hell, you will already know the solution to the Ripper crimes which Murder by Decree endorses: in fact, if you extract all the Sherlockian material from this movie, you do end up with something not too different to From Hell in many ways. The theory in question is certainly an interesting one (and arguably makes more sense than blaming a famous artist who was out of the country when some of the murders were committed, as one celebrated author has done). As a means of communicating this theory in a digestible and engaging way, Murder by Decree is clearly successful. But what about its merits as a film?

Certainly, the production values are quite impressive, although some of the modelwork and matte paintings used to create Victorian London give the place a fairytale quality which may not, strictly speaking, serve the story all that well. The tone of the thing is interesting: for much of its length it plays like a late-period Hammer horror, not short on Kensington Gore, with the Ripper’s coach emerging from a wall of fog in slow-motion like something from a genuine nightmare. The climax plays like a more conventional action movie, with Holmes and the Ripper engaging in personal combat, but even after this comes a lengthy (and rather talky) scene in which Holmes explains how he figured out what’s been going on to the cabal at the heart of the conspiracy.

That he’s managed to do so at all is quite impressive, partly because, in many ways, the plot of Murder by Decree is all over the place – the genuine facts of the Ripper killings are touched upon, but also added to the brew are Anarchist politics, Freemasonry, social comment and even a dash of the paranormal, courtesy of the inclusion of a psychic who identifies the Ripper’s address. It’s also a bit of a feat considering that, prior to this in the movie, the Great Detective has made none of the brilliant deductions he is most famous for, his methods seeming to rely on a mastery of forensic science, his own personal charm, and simply being in the right place at the right time.

Christopher Plummer is a fine and often-underrated actor, but his problem here is that he’s playing a Sherlock Holmes who doesn’t bear much resemblance to the character Conan Doyle was writing about. The trappings are all there – the pipe, the violin, the chemistry set – and he’s never out of his ulster, but this is just superficial. The character seems to be more drawn from the Basil Rathbone version – he’s a jovial, energetic leading man, indulgent of Mason’s crusty, mournful Watson (I hate to say it, but Mason is too old, both as a Watson to Plummer – the actors are twenty years apart in age – and as Watson in general, given the good doctor would have been 40 at the absolute oldest in 1888). This is very much Holmes’ story, as Watson doesn’t get a great deal to do.

You might argue that there are taste issues to consider here, considering we’re talking about a film which takes a much-loved literary hero and mixes him up with the activities of a very real, horribly brutal and misogynistic serial killer – you wouldn’t show Inspector Morse catching Fred West, for instance. Certainly the murders here are much fouler than anything in Conan Doyle. But the film earns itself some credit for not buying into the picture-postcard view of Victorian London common to so many Holmes adaptations. The prostitutes of Whitechapel lead a convincingly horrible and wretched existence, and – provided you buy into the central thesis of the movie – the sympathies of all involved are clearly with the London underclass rather than the establishment.

The first time I saw this movie, I thought a sequence in which the plight of one of the girls moves Holmes first to tears and then to a violent rage did not ring true to the character. And it doesn’t – to Conan Doyle’s Holmes, at least. But in the context of this film, it does make sense. Using Holmes to express a sense of moral outrage at the corruption and hypocrisy of the British establishment is a novel direction to take him in, but in terms of this film, at least, it does work. This, if nothing else, elevates Murder by Decree above the level of simply being nasty exploitation.

Murder by Decree was hailed by the New York Daily Times’ critic as the best Sherlock Holmes movie ever made. I would certainly argue with that, on the grounds that in many ways this is a very inauthentic presentation of the character. But, if we think of it instead simply as a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes, then I’m inclined to cut it a good deal more slack – it has interesting ideas, decent production values, a very strong cast (David Hemmings, Frank Finlay, John Gielgud, Genevieve Bujold, and so on), and its heart is in the right place. (Which is more than can be said for the Ripper’s victims.) One of the classier Holmes movies, and possibly the classiest Ripper movie of the lot.

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