William Goldman’s novels are rarely assessed as much more than expanded screenplays; a pity that books like The Color of Light have never been filmed. But the level of detail in Magic or Marathon Man are indicative of Goldman’s well-researched feeling for the worlds he describes, and John Schlesinger brings the right level of gravity to this 1976 film. Dustin Hoffman is Babe, scholar and runner, who needs both abilities when he discovers that his brother Doc (Roy Scheider) is a double agent and that there’s a gang of Nazis led by Szell (Laurence Olivier) on his case. The dental torture scene has passed into cult history, but there’s plenty of other notably points to enjoy in Marathon Man, from the artfully convoluted construction to the utter seriousness with which the actors treat the material. Goldman was on a roll in the 70’s, and Marathon Man stands up well today as an example of how good writing can make a thriller sing, even if many sequences don’t have the snap that Goldman’s book has; the description of Babe waiting in the bathtub for the assassins to arrive is brilliant prose.
A rare chance to see Sir Laurence Olivier and Police Academy star Steve Guttenberg in the same film, Franklin J Shaffner’s 1978 thriller is a methodical adaptation of Ira Levin’s book. Guttenberg plays Barry Kohler, who finds evidence that a notorious Nazi Dr Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck) has set up shop in Paraguay, with cloning Hitler the purpose of his mission. Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman (Olivier) takes up the chase, and The Boys From Brazil ends with a memorable stand-off between Liebermann and Mengele, with a deadly pair of Rottweilers tearing them bloodily apart. An excellent supporting cast includes Denholm Elliot, Rosemary Harris, James Mason and Bruno Granz, who went on to play Hitler in Downfall. Shaffner’s film is weighty and sometimes ponderous, but the heavyweight cast give the pulpy ideas considerable gravity.
Don Sharp’s 1979 thriller marked the closing of the cycle of films based on Alistair Maclean novels; Bear Island sold over eight million copies, and Sharp’s film is a big-budget Canadian production. Donald Sutherland, Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Widmark and Christopher Lee are amongst the party stationed on Bear Island, which was a base for Nazi U-boats during the war. Various espionage elements are engaged in a search for Nazi gold, and there’s a notable snowmobile chase in the style of a James Bond movie. Public tastes had drifted away from this kind of stoic action by this point, but Bear Island is a decent who-dunnit that keeps the audience in doubt as to the motivations of the well-wrapped-up characters. A coda, noting that Goodbye California by Maclean was in the pipeline, proved to be misguided.
Bryan Singer seems to make nothing but comic-book movies these days; a pity, because his straight dramas (The Usual Suspect) are very accomplished, and 1998’s Stephen King adaptation Apt Pupil is a subversive delight. The later Brad Renfro plays Todd Bowden, who discovers that his elderly neighbor Kurt Dussander (Sir Ian McKellern) is a Nazi war criminal. Bowden blackmails Dussander, forcing him to tell stories about his past in return for the boy’s silence to the authorities. Although previous attempts to film King’s story with James Mason and then Richard Burton failed due to the failing health of the actors, McKellern is more than up to the task, and there’s a powerful irony in the way that the stories of Nazi atrocities inspire Bowden to get a grip of his Californian life. Apt Pupil is a disturbing, thoughtful movie that will provoke debate and discussion; it refuses to put war crimes in a box, and suggests that the motives behind the unforgivable genocides of the past remain latent in modern society.
Adapted by John Wrahall from CP Talyor’s stage-play, Good is a strong historical drama that deals intelligently with the rise of the Nazi party and German nationalism. As the title suggests, definitions of good and bad are blurred by the story of John Halder (Viggo Mortensen) whose book on euthanasia is seized on by Hitler, and Halder finds himself commissioned to write a paper justifying the extermination of the Jews. Halder’s friendship with Gluckstein (Jason Isaacs) provides an obstacle to his career as an advisor to the Nazis, and his relationship with Ann (Jodie Whittaker) further complicates matters. Isaacs was also one of the executive producers on this worthy, but never dull film, and Mortensen’s immersion in the role of Halder is impressive. One of the few films to consider the complications of 1930’s German nationalism in depth, Good is worth seeking out for those interested in the human cost of war.
Based on the true story of Dan Burros, an American Jew who joined the American Nazi Party, Writer/director Henry Bean’s 2001 feature was the first glimpse of Ryan Gosling’s abilities as an actor. Gosling plays Danny Balint, whose self-loathing moves him to become a swastika sporting skinhead punk, despite his Orthodox Jewish background. Bean’s work on Internal Affairs and Deep Cover demonstrated his ability to fashion tight, realistic storytelling, and he surrounds Gosling with strong performers, from Summer Phoenix and Garret Dillahunt to Theresa Russell and Billy Zane. Too controversial for awards recognition or a wide-release, The Believer is a shocking film that packs considerable intellectual power in its portrait of a disturbed young man.
Antole Litvak’s 1966 thriller has a brilliant idea as it’s core; in the middle of the chaos of Warsaw in 1942, a Polish prostitute is found murdered, and Major Grau (Omar Sharrif) suspects one of three Nazi generals is responsible. Played by Peter O’Toole, Charles Gray and Donald Pleasance, each man has his motives, and Grau has to balance his interrogations against the feeling that the tide of the war is turning against them; what is the point of justice in a world gone mad. The script, with Paul Dehn contributing, doesn’t quite get to the core of the drama, but it’s still and unusual who-dunnit with compelling scenes, including a tense sub-plot involving Tom Courtney. Litvak’s cold, sometimes distant film would make a good double bill with Valkerie (2008)