It must have seemed like a good idea at the time; reuniting producer, Sam Spiegel with former Lawrence of Arabia (1962) co-stars, Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, and a bit of Tom Courtenay (Doctor Zhivago, 1965) thrown in for good measure; Spiegel, of course, having produced the aforementioned with his favorite director, David Lean. The Austrian-born Spiegel, almost as well known in Hollywood for his sexual propensity foisted upon very young starlets (he had, in fact, acquired the moniker ‘the velvet octopus’ for his ambitious flagrante delicto in the back of taxi cabs) had also produced Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Before an inconsolable rift tore into their friendship, Spiegel adored Lean as he loved all things British. The feeling was arguably mutual – Lean doing some of his best work for Spiegel; the two men occasionally at artistic odds yet always finding a way to resolve their issues…until... If, in private, Spiegel played the part of the ‘flawed protagonist’, professionally, he saw himself as a meddling mogul cut from the same cloth as David O. Selznick. He maintained this impeccable – if somewhat boorish – reputation, built upon erudite wit and worldly sophistication; a true renaissance man where the movies were concerned, so described by biographer, Natasha Fraser-Cavassoni as “a titanic figure, the likes of which Hollywood would not see again.” However, almost immediately after Zhivago’s landslide success, Spiegel’s footing in the film industry began to slip.
Indicative of this malaise is The Night of the Generals (1967); a movie to glaringly suggest Spiegel’s incapability to progress with the times; a weighty crime caper wrapped in the enigma of a WWII drama. It is exactly the sort of milieu from which David Lean might have made cinema art, blending fact with fiction and period history, in this case the failed Valkyrie conspiracy, as a broader canvass on which to situate, query and extol the more intimate minutiae of Hans Hellmut Krist’s novel; passion and sin, always good for box office. Alas, what we get instead under director, Anatole Litvak’s uninspired tutelage, is an oft turgidly scripted, though impeccably tricked out and lavishly appointed whodunit, with an uncharacteristically blemished, thoroughly stiff, and, frequently silly performance by Peter O’Toole as Nazi General Wilhelm Tanz. O’Toole, who spends most of the picture propped up like a steely-eyed monument to National Socialism, strapped to the front of a jeep as a Hitlerian masthead, or marching in and out of scenes as if to infer some unsuspecting dissident dared probe his ass cavity with a very large and uncomfortable cattle prod, is about as universally unappealing and ridiculous, if as vicious as clichés about Nazi officers get; robotic even, as he maneuvers like a steam shovel past any and all investigative roadblocks set in his path by Abwehr Major Grau (Omar Sharif in an infinitely more compassionate and varied performance). O’Toole ought to have known better. For although he does much to harden his handsome, fine-boned, Brit-born features into a stoic Arian nation waxworks with less than convincing flair, his performance owes more to an audio-animatronic figure swiped from Disney’s Hall of Socialists; O’Toole conveying little beyond a reoccurring facial tic, meant to transmit the inner emasculation and anxieties steadily eroding a thoroughly crippled psyche.
How any mother, even one as misguidedly committed to destroying her own daughter’s happiness as Eleanore von Seidlitz-Gabler (Coral Browne) could consider Tanz potential marriage material is frankly, beyond the scope of understanding, and, mercifully, not in the lexicon of the daughter in question, Ulrike (Joanna Pettit) who prefers the physically diminutive, somewhat effete and cowardly Corporal Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay). Alas, the plot of this overstuffed turkey is not concerned with any of them, but rather pivots on Grau’s investigation into the murders of various ghetto prostitutes; his three suspects; Tanz, General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray) and General Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance); none of whom have an ironclad alibi on the night in question. The crime is brutal, the whore’s genitalia mutilated beyond recognition. We are spared the grotesqueness of the act itself, or even anything beyond a glimpse in reaction shots to the crime scene by Spiegel’s good taste. If only the screenplay were not rather clumsily stitched together by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn (more on this later). Dehn is the more fascinating figure here; a pre-WWII movie critic who became a covert assassin’s trainer (a.k.a Political Warfare Instructor) at the infamous Camp X; Dehn’s passion for espionage and movies eventually boiling over into other creative outlets after the war, writing the screenplays for Orders to Kill (1958), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) and the James Bond super-spy/thriller, Goldfinger (1964). Portions of The Night of the Generals bear Dehn’s mark of screenwriting excellence; particularly in the cloistered exchanges between General’s Seidlitz-Gabler and Kahlenberge; the ascribed ‘Muppet-esque’ Statler and Waldorf of this piece; filling in the gaps with a their barb-laden running commentaries.
The Night of the Generals opens with a series of intriguingly distorted images beneath its main titles; close-ups of a Nazi uniform, chest full of medals and shiny boots advancing toward the screen, before a single ‘red light’ bulb explodes before our eyes. From here we regress to a hovel in Warsaw; a man, hearing a scream on the staircase and ducking into the lavatory, peering through a crack in its door and witnessing a pair of pants with a red stripe pass by. The terrified man later identifies himself as Wionczek (Charles Millot) to investigating Police Officer, Liesowski (Yves Brainville) and Abwehr Major Grau. It seems a prostitute has been murdered in her upstairs flat; not, perhaps, such an extraordinary occurrence, except that the perpetrator of the crime may, in fact, belong to the German High Command, while the woman in question is later identified as Maia Kupenska; an agent working for the Nazis. Grau is appalled to think as much. He would much prefer the crime to have been committed by a Polish sexual degenerate. But he cannot ignore nor even condemn Wionczek for swearing he saw a General’s uniform pass his way undetected in the hall. And thus, the investigation begins. Grau is not at all favored amongst his peers. Indeed, his impartiality while searching for the truth is an anathema to Generals Seidlitz-Gabler and Kahlenberge, although Tanz publicly defends the tenacity with which Grau is conducting his research.
Tanz is a queer one, showing compassion toward the impoverished children while decimating the ghettos where a good many of them live, simply to weed out a few dissidents and plotters against the Nazi machine; using what both Grau and Kahlenberge consider ‘excessive force’ to get the job done. Tanz’s plan is divided into three phases; the third, a complete obliteration of Warsaw - if necessary – if only to free up three Panzer divisions meant for the Russian front. Frau Eleanor Seidlitz-Gabler interrupts a conference between Kahlenberge, her husband, and Gen. Tanz with an invitation to a grand party to be given at their home; a chance for Tanz to reacquaint himself with their daughter, Ulrike; the latter, since chosen military service to a good boarding school, and this despite her mother’s stern wishes. However, Tanz shows little interest in the girl, but deigns to attempt the party anyway. Afterward, Eleanore confronts her husband with evidence of a stain on his uniform; a particular shade of lipstick Maia Kupenska uses; one of the red herrings in the screenplay, meant to deflect our suspicions away from the real killer. Regrettably, almost from the outset, it becomes an open secret that Gen. Tanz is our man. Thus we spend the rest of the movie waiting for Grau, and later, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret) to catch up to this transparently exposed truth.
Sergeant Otto Köpke (Nigel Stock) finagles an audience between Kahlenberge and his cousin, Corporal Kurt Hartmann, presumably a hero, wounded in the line of duty, but reported to have killed forty Russians single-handed. To spare Hartmann his return to the front, Otto presents him to Kahlenberge for his consideration to a diplomatic appointment in Warsaw. But Hartmann, while cordial, is nevertheless insistent to resist any special treatment. To somewhat dampen Hartmann’s cheek, Kahlenberge assigns him the mundane task of playing piano at Frau Seidlitz-Gabler’s party. Ulrike is delighted to see her lover again. But Eleanore informs her daughter she will soon renounce her commission in the army and enter the nunnery, or, entertain a romance with Tanz for which neither Ulrike or Tanz seemingly has the stomach. Grau crashes the party; his cordial inquiries to Gen. Seidlitz-Gabler, Kahlenberge and Tanz to provide some clue as to their whereabouts at the time of Maia’s murder, ruffle more than a few feathers. It is inferred all three men could be counted upon to frequent the red light district. Meanwhile, Hartmann and Ulrike rekindle their passionate romance. He confides in her the wounds he sustained were derived from an act of cowardice, not heroism. After his entire company was mowed down by Russian soldiers, Hartmann proceeded to flee from the scene and was wounded. With no one alive to protest otherwise, Hartmann willingly accepted the rumor he had survived the assault while gallantly defending the honor of his now deceased regiment.
Grau witnesses Tanz decimating half the city in a firestorm meant to cleanse and evacuate the ghettos of their Jewish population. Grau is appalled by this show of brute force, but more so put off when, upon returning to his office, he discovers Gen. Kahlenberge has initiated proceedings for his immediate transfer out of Warsaw to Paris. Inexplicably, the screenplay makes a quantum leap into the post-war period. We are introduced to Inspector Morand who has taken up Grau’s investigation, looking for clues into Tanz’s past and his current domicile; making his first inquiries to retired Colonel Sandauer (John Gregson), presently a manager at a VW plant in Hamburg. From Sandauer’s polite recollections we regress to Paris 1944. By the irony of fate, Kahlenberge, Seidlitz-Gabler, Hartmann and Tanz all find themselves in closer proximity to the truth; Grau picking up his investigation in Paris. Otto arranges for Hartmann to become Tanz’s personal attaché; a ceremonial post with few, if any, real perks, except to afford him access to a government car, not only as Tanz’s chauffeur but also employed in his spare time to rekindle his romance with Ulrike.
Grau befriends Inspector Morand and suggests dossiers be secretly kept on Kalenberge, Seidlitz-Gabler and Tanz. One of them is so obviously the murderer. Meanwhile, Hartmann assumes his duties as Tanz’s driver. Tanz has Hartmann drive him to the Louvre; intrigued by a group of paintings requisitioned by the Reich; Impressionists and modern art, the sort Hitler considered ‘degenerate’ and thus kept under lock and key, as unsuitable for public display. But as Hartmann observes, Tanz has something of a mental breakdown, becoming absorbed by the penetrating stare in Vincent Van Gogh’s self-portrait. Attempting to stir Tanz from this spooky trance, Hartmann is admonished for placing his hand on Tanz. More than anything else, Hartmann is disturbed by Tanz’s increasingly erratic behavior. He drives Tanz to the Moulin Rouge; then, much later, to a seedy Bohemian nightclub where Tanz is propositioned by the prostitute, Monique (Véronique Vendell). Although Tanz resists Monique’s ‘charms’ the first night, he orders Hartmann to bring around the car several nights later, and, to solicit her to attend him at his pleasure. Unknowingly, Monique complies. She is driven to a seedy apartment, raped and murdered by Tanz, who now telephones Hartmann to attend him. Horrified by the bloody carnage, Hartmann is ready to flee, but is held at gunpoint by Tanz.
Tanz intends to frame Hartmann for the murder, illustrating how easy it would be. No one saw him at the club. Monique was coaxed into the backseat of his waiting car by Hartmann, who also had a drink of brandy in her room at Tanz’s request, thus leaving his fingerprints at the crime scene. Tanz tears off Hartmann’s identification badge, tossing it at the foot of the bed where the dismembered body lays. He orders Hartmann to get out of Paris. He has twenty-four hours before Tanz will report his disappearance and thus lead police directly to Monique’s cold dead remains. Unable to reason his way out of incarceration, Hartmann foolishly takes the next train from Paris; his feeble attempt to telephone Ulrike and explain the situation thwarted by his tardiness and the train already pulling out of station. Meanwhile, Ulrike confesses to Eleanore she and Hartmann are lovers – and have been for quite some time. Grau and Inspector Morand investigate Monique’s murder. But although Hartmann’s tags are found at the foot of the bed, something about this discovery just does not fit, enough for Grau to pursue Tanz at Nazi’ headquarters. Operation Valkyrie, of which both Kahlenberge and Seidlitz-Gabler were quietly aware, has failed to assassinate Hitler; Tanz using the occasion to throw Grau off his interrogation long enough to fire two fatal bullets into his chest. Tanz then orders Colonel Sandauer to have Grau’s body removed from his office, even going so far as to suggest the purpose of Grau’s visit was to have him arrested as one of the participants in Valkyrie’s botched assassination; a claim with no basis in fact Tanz knows will never stick to him.
We advance to the mid-1960’s; Morand catching up with Kahlenberge at the airport. Kahlenberge is forthright, though weary, suggesting no possible good could come of dredging up crimes that now seem as ancient as the dust. Morand, however, intends to solve the murder of the two prostitutes; also, to bring justice against the man who killed Grau, whom Morand highly regarded as his friend. Morand pays a social call on Seidlitz-Gabler and Eleanore. The old general confides, among other things, his great regret; that in these many years since the war he has grown distant from his only child, Ulrike, who wants nothing to do with either of them. Informed by Seidlitz-Gabler, Ulrike has married a farmer named Lucktner, Morand tracks her down in the countryside. She lies about seeing Hartmann after the war. But Morand comes to realize Lucktner and Hartmann are one in the same. Ulrike married Hartmann and maintained his secret identity all these many years. Tracking Tanz down at a reunion dinner of his former panzer division, Morand attempts to question him about the murders. As ever, Tanz is remote and uncompliant, believing there is virtually no way for Morand to have uncovered the truth…except, Morand now reveals to Tanz ‘a witness’ to his crime; Lucktner, or rather, Hartmann. Faced with inevitable incarceration, as there is no statute of limitations on the crime of murder, Tanz retires to an adjacent room where he takes his own life with his gun.
The finale to The Night of the Generals leaves no room for any sort of emotional satisfaction; no ‘happy ending’ as it were that might have at least made its dour denouement palpable to audiences then, or, in fact, now. Worse, is the very real problem with our central protagonists: they are all Nazis!!! Even Grau, arguably, imparted with the greatest of compassion in a marvelous performance by Omar Sharif, makes one’s blood run cold, then rancid, when he amusedly suggests to Morand murder ‘on a large scale’ may be (choke!) “admirable”, while on a small scale, it is “monstrous”. I am relatively certain the thousands of Jews who survived the holocaust would emphatically disagree with this assessment, not to mentioned the millions more since who could not – and never should – misconstrue such heinous slaughter as ‘valor’ of any kind. Interestingly, The Night of the Generals is cast with not a single German name in the credits; the Nazi high command fleshed out by extremely competent Brit-born, French and American talent – and one Egyptian; a curiosity for anyone expecting undiluted authenticity from this movie-going experience.
It might have worked, except for the script; Spiegel, in lending screen credit to Paul Dehn and Joseph Kessel, rather openly omitting whole portions of this movie’s narrative are owed, not to Hans Hellmut Kirst’s celebrated novel but rather, James Hadley Chase’s The Wary Transgressor, with uncredited screenwriters, Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson applying even more seasoning to this already well-fermented gumbo of contradictions and entanglements. The Night of the Generals is not a bad picture. But it is, for the most part, a wholly unpleasant one, brooding with brittle performances. The cool austerity applied to virtually every German is, I think, in keeping with a certain ilk of film-making portrayals as pure caricature: Germanic peoples broad-brushed as either cruel-hearted Nazis or steely-eyed Nazi sympathizers. If we are meant to root for anyone, then it is Sharif’s Grau – and after his untimely passing, Inspector Morand; perhaps, to a lesser extent, Corporal Hartmann and Ulrike; the clumsy and somewhat ‘Doctor Zhivago-esque’ ‘young lover’ and his winsome paramour respectively, nearly torn asunder by these hellish and changing times. The problem here is none of these characters are sincerely fleshed out for the audience. We do get a lot of antipathy towards the war; some philosophical hypothesizing too about its aftermath, and some deliberately obtuse commentaries meant to illustrate ‘the mentality’ of the Nazi high command; if not to better understand it – and certainly, never to embrace them as ‘just people too’; then, endeavoring to breach the impossible chasm with some thoroughly flawed logic about a soldier’s duty, despite common sense dictating otherwise.
The Night of the Generals is blessed to have Henri Decaë’s sumptuous cinematography. Spiegel, who cajoled, bartered, then fought like hell to have the picture made on location in Warsaw and France, is also fortunate in his Production Designer Alexandre Trauner, and Art Director Auguste Capelier. Very often, though particularly in classic Hollywood movies, there is a distinct disconnect between second unit location work and interior sets; a character walking across a street in Paris, only to open a door to an obvious set on a soundstage in Hollywood. But herein, the pieces just seem to fit. If only Spiegel had paid a little more attention to the film’s narrative structure; also, to keep its run time trimmed below two hours. The Night of the Generals is really a rather inauspicious whodunit, tricked out in the trappings of a faux WWII epic. But it neither deserves nor compliments the picture to elongate its plot to 148 minutes, even if Spiegel – who had fled from Berlin in 1933, was personally invested in bringing it to the big screen with heavy-handed, A-list panache. We now know Spiegel did not choose Anatole Litvak to direct the movie; rather, Litvak owned the rights to Kirst’s novel and would not relinquish them for any money, thus forcing Spiegel to hire him. And Spiegel, perhaps to hedge his bets with people who could be trusted, or rather, who had previously proven their mettle in pictures he had produced, went after Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif. Although neither believed in the project – and would have preferred to abstain – both felt initially indebted to Spiegel for having possessed faith in them when they were merely starting out.
Nevertheless, a steady resentment grew between O’Toole, Sharif and Spiegel as shooting progressed, mostly for the latter’s thrift, forcing both actors to adhere to their ‘slave contract’ agreements, signed for Lawrence of Arabia. Under these terms, Sharif was paid a paltry 7,500 pounds ($19,086.75) and O'Toole, 15,000 pounds ($38,175); wages to stick in the craw as each was by now a much sought after ‘star’, though especially when considering character actor, Donald Pleasence, in a much smaller supporting role, was tipping the scales at $80,000 for his participation. While O’Toole remained mildly aloof throughout the production, for Sharif, the whole of his dismay could be distilled into a single incident he later relayed in his biography; the bitter winter forcing him inside a nearby café between takes, only to have the local citizenry regard his Nazi uniform with considerable angst, anger and, in a few cases, genuine fear and tears welling up. “Nobody said a word,” Sharif writes in his memoirs, “The barman refused to serve me. I suddenly understood the incongruity of that German uniform in a peaceful neighborhood café. I sensed the sadness it inspired. Twenty-two years had elapsed without mitigating the pain and horror. On that day I learned that time can't make people forget.”
By contrast, The Night of the Generals was almost entirely forgotten after first being generally eviscerated by the critics. Part of the blame for its box office failure must squarely rest on Spiegel’s micromanagement; his constant berating of Litvak on the set, and, the bitterness incurred between the producer and Peter O’Toole. But for all its imperfections, The Night of the Generals is a curious and unsettling oddity, teeming with nuggets of intrigue just waiting to be unearthed. That none of these comes together as a cohesive whole, enough to ignite and then maintain our fancy for very long is, in fact, the picture’s real failing. Hell, it might even be an artistic tragedy. Art by committee, after all, is a very dangerous prospect. Or as David Lean once pointed out: “Directing has to be a very selfish endeavor. The more a picture is one person’s response and view of the world the better it will be.” In hindsight, the obvious flaw in The Night of the Generals is behind the scenes it so obviously became a tug-o-war between Spiegel, Litvak and O’Toole; all of them pulling in opposite directions, each to ensure none of their perspectives envisioned, would ever entirely translate to the screen.
To be sure, there is better news to be had from Twilight Time’s Blu-ray release; a positively gorgeous affair. Grover Crisp at Sony has ensured the utmost attention paid to quality in this new restoration sourced in 4K. Colors are, for the most part, vibrant. On occasion, flesh tones appear slightly ashen and reds tend to adopt a purplish hue. Sharpness is questionable in several scenes. During Tanz’s assault on the ghetto we get some curious built-in image flicker. I am not entirely certain anything more could have been done to ‘stabilize’ these anomalies before exporting the image to Blu-ray. But we should note a good deal of effort has gone into making The Night of the Generals look infinitely superior to its previously available DVD. The original mono audio gets an impressive DTS mono upgrade. For the most part, everything is pretty much ‘front and center’; Maurice Jarre’s over-produced score sounding the most bombastic and, on occasion, out of place. Dialogue is very crisp and effects lack bass tonality. What can I tell you – it is a vintage mono track sounding both very vintage and very mono. No complaints. TT offers us an isolated score in 2.0 stereo, and, a theatrical trailer but nothing else, save Julie Kirgo’s liner notes; always a distinct pleasure to peruse. Bottom line: top marks to Sony and TT for making this one available; a near perfect 1080p transfer of a movie that is far less deserving of such treatment.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)