The Night Of The Generals (1967)
Director: Anatole Litvak
Starring: Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay
Release date: January 29 (UK). I haven’t seen this! I thought I had – possibly I caught 10-20 minutes while channel hopping once then forgot all about it. The end was very familiar. The other incredible thing is, I’m 3 films in and it’s the third war movie from a German perspective! What are the odds on that? May contain nervous tics and spoilers…
1942, Warsaw. The gruesome murder of a prostitute sparks an investigation when the only witness partly identifies the culprit to be wearing the uniform pants of a German General. There are three suspects whose whereabouts on the night in question cannot be verified. On questioning, all are evasive and somewhat distracted. Well, they have got more important things to consider than a dead hooker, like, y’know, a World War. Frustratingly, the trail goes cold. Two years later, 1944, the command has decamped to Paris but Major Grau (Omar Sharif), the investigating officer hasn’t forgotten Warsaw and with the help of French Inspector Morand will continue the pursuit of justice. Meanwhile, a group of German officers prepare to make a decisive move against Hitler. Matters will be further muddied by the slaughter of another prostitute…
We are introduced to the three Generals in no particular order. Tanz (Peter O’Toole) is a stickler. He commands the Nibelungen Division and is known to be a hard-ass. Yet we see him distributing food, his own lunch no less, to starving Polish children. Von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray) is a different kind of dangerous who sits on the fence and waits to see which way the breeze will blow. He’s only your friend if it suits him; if it doesn’t, he’ll cheerfully leave you twisting in the wind. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence) seems to be the most humanitarian of the three, he frowns on Tanz’s brutal Warsaw crackdown for example. But then he’s also the one who gets Grau conveniently promoted and transferred to Paris, just as Grau is sniffing around the murder trail… The Warsaw victim, apart from being a hooker, was also an informant working for the Germans. The attack on her was frenzied (off screen) with something like 100 stab wounds, her sexual organs being the primary focus of this unrestrained savagery. The perpetrator is one sick and deranged individual. So which one of the above three fits the bill, then?
It’s quite a disconcerting film in that director Litvak jumps us forward through the years without warning; you’re fully immersed in 1942 shenanigans, then it’s 1965 (ironically where I started my birthday series). The realisation that I was following an ongoing investigation through to the present day caught me off guard, particularly led by a character yet to be properly introduced. Done well, as it is here, it’s an effective device to use. Litvak is careful to set up his three suspects with a motive, whether it be the coldness of Tanz, or the stains found on Gabler’s uniform by his battleaxe of a wife, or Kahlenberge quickly and quietly moving Grau on. But once the assassination plot properly comes into play, when Gabler and Kahlenberge ease Tanz onto the sidelines, Litvak has a harder job maintaining the who-doodit part of the story. He tries to throw the audience off the scent by discounting one of the suspects but honestly, we’re quite a way in by then and I think Litvak has given up on the subterfuge; it’s nothing more than a token gesture – a bum note actually, because it makes the impeccable Grau look foolish. But that’s a minor complaint seeing as it in no way diminishes the enjoyment value.
At the heart of Generals is a performance I’m surprised we don’t hear more about. Peter O’Toole. He exudes power and menace. While there is little doubt that this man is a predator, there is a weakness in Tanz that is hard to pin down, like there’s a war going on inside him. Here is a man who stands amidst the flames of a burning town, admiring the destruction he has wrought. Yet the same man can stand in an art gallery, transfixed by the wild glare of a Van Gogh self-portrait, reduced to helpless spasm; is he looking into a mirror? O’Toole plays Tanz as a man who rarely looks anyone in the eye, his gaze wanders around during a conversation. Into his orbit comes Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) to act as his chaperone when Gabler orders Tanz to have some time off. Hartmann is a war hero, he single-handedly killed 40 Russian soldiers, y’know. He’s also secretly courting Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), Gabler’s daughter. You are aware, the way Courtenay is playing Hartmann, this guy ain’t no war hero. Kahlenberge doesn’t believe it either, judging from the tone of his interview with Hartmann. The uncomfortable, quirky relationship with Tanz hints at an unlikely companionship. I only said hints at didn’t I…
Omar Sharif is also on form. His Major Grau is a determined officer who hunts a killer irrespective of rank, continues an investigation even during an ambush by the Polish Resistance. Grau is even tempered and good humoured. He isn’t phased when confronting a General or three. He knows they harbour nothing but contempt for him, in fact he’s probably inspired by it. Generals is a film of duets and here is the second; Grau is without doubt a motherchuffer trying to ice skate up hill until he meets Morand (Philippe Noiret). We guess that the Inspector has links to the French Resistance and is naturally suspicious of Grau. But once he sees the German officer’s diligence to the single murder in question at the expense of even the revelatory news of a plot to kill the Nazi Commander in Chief, Morand knows this is a man of strong moral fibre and looks beyond the uniform Grau is wearing. They’re just two blokes waiting for the war to end so they can get on with being friends. The third duet is between Gabler and Kahlenberge, very much a cagey affair, the antithesis of co-conspirators for each time Kahlenberge casts for support, Gabler drifts out to the periphery, maintaining a tactical distance. Pleasence plays his man out on a limb, isolated, you can see the responsibility placed on his shoulders weighing him down. Yeh, he looks like a man who needs to relieve the stress any way he can from time to time…
There are several very good scenes, the art gallery and the subsequent face-off with ‘Vincent in flames’ would be my own pick, not least because it parallels an earlier scene of Tanz amidst the flames. And then he asks Hartmann to arrange a second visit to the gallery; it’s as if the first trip never happened, he doesn’t even remember picking up a pamphlet from there containing a list of attractions, trapped as he was within a Van Gogh-triggered fugue. Any scene with O’Toole and Courtenay together, really, but I also like Hartmann’s job interview with Kahlenberge, Pleasence offering a fast-track return to the front line and Courtenay batting it right back – as I’ve no doubt the good General expected he would…
“I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried; a German hero from the Golden Age… Do you feel like Siegfried?” Kahlenberge enquires.
“I’m not at all certain, sir, how Siegfried felt.” Hartmann replies.
“Well that’s a sensible answer…”
A plastered Tanz trying to walk un-drunk is great as well, O’Toole is ace all round. The crew deliver too, production design, art department, camera and costumes – excellent work across the board. Also, beware of some unfathomably bad dubbed in lines here and there…
If you haven’t seen Generals already, I can highly recommend it.
Trailer (contains a spoiler): http://tinyurl.com/3khkct9
I’m giving Generals 4 Von Stauffenbergs out of 5.
ThereWolf, February 2012