The Night of the Generals

Year 1967

Peter O'Toole as  General Tanz
Omar Sharif as Major Grau
Donald Pleasence   as General Kahlenberge  
Philippe Noiret as Inspector Morand
Tom Courtenay as Corporal Hartmann
Director - Anatole Litvak
Screenwriters - Joseph Kessel
    Paul Dehn
Cinematographer     Henri DecaŽ

It's World War II and in Warsaw a prostitute has been brutally murdered by a German general. There are three suspects. Years later, in Paris the same three suspects are there when the crime is repeated in that city. Now add the Operation Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler. What could have been contrived and muddled is compelling and exciting.

There are five reasons to watch this movie.

The first is the acting. Peter O'Toole as the cold General Tanz is fascinating. Think of his portrayal of T.E. Lawrence but moving even closer to the edge of sanity. It's convincing. Peter O'Toole is the Nibelungen SS Division general with issues. Make no mistake, you'd follow this man anywhere because of his confident persona. Donald Pleasence displays his acting ability as the more humane General Kahlenberge. Charles Gray (Rocky Horror Picture Show's "Where's your neck?") as General von Seidlitz-Gabler is also credible. So is Joanna Pettet (I only knew her as a Night Gallery company actress) as the general's daughter. Omar Sharif, although he has the best lines, is the weakest link. He's not bad, but he's not fully convincing as the man determined to find the prostitutes' killer while millions are dying in an ongoing war.

The second is the historical accuracy. There are some deviations from fact and the three generals under suspicion are amalgamations of real generals, but the unfolding of Operation Valkyrie was duplicated as close to accurately as was known at the time. The hierarchy of the German army was also accurate. The uniforms and lifestyles rang true. Even the correct vehicles for each phase of the war looked correct. The book author, Hans Hellmut Kirst, paid homage to his country's past in his attention to detail and veracity of events. This is categorically translated to the screen by Joseph Kessel.

The third is the musical score. It's nothing that you'd hum, but it's appropriate and used to great effect.

The fourth is the dialog. It never drops below interesting and often hits the height of prose. When Major, now Colonel, Grau speaks with Inspector Morand over lunch their repartee is clever and efficient. The following may not be exact, but it gets the mood of the urbane exchange across.

Morand: How did you know?
Grau: The same way that I know that you are codename <I forget> in the French Resistance.

Morand: The waiter is one of my men.
Grau: I think I recognize the wine steward as being one of ours.

Another scene is the dialog between Tanz and Hartmann at lunch. Tanz is obviously setting Hartmann up for something, but what? Hartmann's transfer as Tanz's permanent aide? A fall guy? A confidant?

Tanz: Who is more important, a general or a corporal?
Hartmann: A general.

Tanz: Do you have a girl?
Hartmann: No.
After a couple of subjects have been discussed, Tanz obliquely returns to the previous topic.
Tanz: Let me see your wallet.
A girl's picture, a general's daughter's picture, is in the wallet.
Tanz: You have excellent taste.

Grau corners the generals at a ball and Tanz does not want the man around.
Tanz: Are you wearing perfume?
Grau: I sometimes put on eau de cologne after shaving.
The generals silently condemn him and Grau leaves.

The fifth reason is the cinematography. The cool, composed, self-controlled image of Tanz standing in his staff car overseeing the flushing out of resistance members while men with flame throwers burn buildings behind him is art. The recreation of the outside of the German headquarters in Warsaw is clean and crisp and memorable. The ballroom scene shrieks opulence. The choreography of man and machine outside of Tanz's headquarters displays attention to detail that drives home the martial nature of the man. The sight of a smoke filled room crammed with Operation Valkyrie plotters captures the mood of conspiracy realistically.

I've read that some DVD transfers were too dark to watch. I viewed the DVD in the case whose picture appears above and there were no issues. There were no extras, but the picture was beautiful and the sound issues were not due to a poor transfer.

There's one other thing that I appreciated. Set-ups are not telegraphed. There's a sort of love story in the background. You may wonder why there's a love story in such a movie at all. I know that I did. But, it is essential to the story as a means of revealing character motivation. Without character traits disclosed during these trysts, the rest of the movie would be shallow. But they're so nicely interwoven that they don't feel contrived.

Now for the bad. Let's start with the sound. It's obvious that some of the dialog was rerecorded and dubbed. The words sometimes don't match the lips. One scene in particular sticks out as an example of bad dubbing. Grau has caught up with the generals in a ballroom. During the exchange, the generals sound "normal" while Grau sounds like he's in an echo chamber.

There's another scene where the back of Tanz's head is part of the scene. When Tanz speaks, his jaw moves. The problem is that the jaw starts moving about a second after the words are heard. It's distracting.

The accents may drive you nuts. If someone is speaking in English then within the context of the movie they're most likely speaking German. Sometimes the English is with a British accent, sometimes it's Canadian, and sometimes there's a French pronunciation of English words. Other times, characters speak in their character's native tongue. But in Poland, the local language sounded more French than Polish. Within minutes though, there's a pattern of mixtures that'll become clear so it should be no more than a minor distraction.

O'Toole's eyeliner is weird. In the 60s, he was a very pretty man without makeup. But with his pale skin the black eyeliner used in this movie makes him look like a porcelain doll rather than a flesh and blood character.

This movie is an English/French joint venture. There are European units in the movie which can seem odd for us Americans. For example, in one scene Tanz states that the bathwater was 32 degrees and it should have been 31. He's not talking about below freezing temperatures, he's using Celcius units. If using Fahrenheit, he would have said that it was 90 degrees and it should have been 88.

Some people may not appreciate that the German author Kirst tries to make his German generals sympathetic by distancing them from the actions for which they are accountable. It's only patriotism talking and should not be a valid reason for dismissing the film.

Although you never get lost in the transitions, portions of the movie are told as flashbacks. Knowing that the first few scenes depict an eyewitness account unknown to anyone but the characters involved and is followed by a retelling of events as remembered by the Polish investigator and after that it is a meeting between the same investigator and Inspector Morant in current time (1967) may help keep things straight at the beginning.

The biggest flaw of the film is the lack of backstory or motivation. Why is the killer doing what he's doing? Because of a war related mental breakdown? Where are the details of that? With Operation Valkyrie, what makes a general attempt to assassinate Hitler? What gives a general such conviction that his actions are correct? It must have been something in his upbringing which is not mentioned.

The plusses by far outweigh the minuses. This movie, from the opening scene to the final resolution will keep you watching and you'll remember it for a long time to come. I'd been looking for this movie on DVD since movies have been released to DVD. Only now has it been transferred. It's been too long of a wait.

Back to the "At Least Once" list or the main movie list.