I had watched ‘The Night of the Generals’ during my school days, and had faint pictures in my mind about Peter o’ Toole as a WWII German General. I recently decided to watch it again onto my home DVD. Believe me, had a amazing time, of course recalling those moments once again and to this day, i render this as one of the best war-themed suspense thrillers I’ve ever seen. Worth an evening.
The Night of the Generals is a 1967 Franco-British World War II crime mystery film directed by Anatole Litvak and produced by Sam Spiegel. It stars Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasence, Joanna Pettet and Philippe Noiret. The screenplay by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn was loosely based on the beginning of the novel of the same name by German author Hans Hellmut Kirst. The writing credits also include the line “based on an incident written by James Hadley Chase”. Gore Vidal is said to have contributed to the screenplay, but wasn’t credited.
The musical score was composed by Maurice Jarre. Much of the film was shot in Warsaw, which was exceptionally rare for a major Western film at the height of the Cold War.
It starts with the murder of a prostitute in German-occupied Warsaw in 1942 causes Abwehr Major Grau (Omar Sharif) to start an investigation, as the women killed happened to be a German agent. His evidence soon points to the killer being one of three German general officers: General von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasence), his chief of staff, and General Tanz (Peter O’Toole). Major Grau’s investigation is cut short by his summary transfer to Paris at the instigation of these officers.
Many years after the war, the murder of a prostitute in Hamburg in 1965 draws the attention of Interpol Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), who owes a debt of gratitude to Grau for not revealing his contextual connection to the French Resistance during the war. This becomes almost certain there is a connection to Grau’s case, Morand reopens the cold case and the movie begins to shift between the Europe of the 1960s and the Europe of the 1940s.
The case in Warsaw remains closed until all three officers meet in Paris in July 1944. Paris during the war is then a hotbed of intrigue, with senior Wehrmacht officers plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Kahlenberg is deeply involved in the plot, while von Seydlitz-Gabler is aware of its existence but is sitting on the fence, awaiting the outcome. Tanz is unaware of the plot and remains totally loyal to the Führer. On the night of 19 July 1944-Tanz orders his driver, Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), to procure a prostitute and in his zealous intent, Tanz butchers her so as to implicate Hartmann, but offers Hartmann the chance to desert, which he accepts. When Grau, who is now a Lieutenant Colonel, learns of the murder, committed in the same manner as the first, he resumes his investigation and concludes that Tanz is the killer. However, his timing is unfortunate, because the very next day, the assassination attempt against Hitler takes place. So when Grau accuses Tanz face to face, the general kills Grau and labels him as one of the plot conspirators to cover his tracks.
Years later, Morand begins to tie up the loose ends: he finds no criminal activity from Kahlenberg or Seydlitz-Gabler, but learns of one man who knew which man is the real killer. Morand confronts Tanz at a reunion dinner for Tanz’s former panzer division. When Morand produces Hartmann as his witness, Tanz goes into a vacant room and shoots himself.
The Night of the Generals is a well-crafted murder mystery that uses real life historical events as a backdrop. Yes, there was a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler by members of his own staff in ’44. That story is told in the 2008 movie Valkyrie (directed by Bryan Singer) starring Tom Cruise. The director Anatole Litvak (Anastasia, The Snake Pit) tells a very suspenseful story that manages to hold your interest throughout the film. The finest performance in this movie comes from Peter O’Toole as the cold-hearted, sinful General Tanz who has no problem with destroying a whole section of Warsaw while looking for members of the Resistance. He sends a chill up your spine every time he shows up. I never saw O’Toole playing a villain before, but he does an amazing job with the role. Looking at O’Toole’s eyeliner is weird in this movie and without a makeup; his pale skin the black eyeliner used in this movie makes him look like a porcelain doll rather than a flesh and blood character.
Major Grau played by Sheriff also gives a great performance who keeps meticulous notes on everything that is said in his office and his reasons for solving the case are very enthralling: the moral implications of murder no matter who committed it and his scorn for the aristocratic officer class viz. General Tanz is noteworthy reference.
The story structure is quite good, as most of it is in the form of flashbacks from people who were present during the events of 1942 and 1944. The character of a French Interpol agent (Noiret, Cinema Paradiso) is something very groovy and in his sequence of reopening the murder cases in ‘1965 after a prostitute murdered in the same manner as the other two, is quite a plunge and his distinct search is eye-catching. Besides its historical facts of the WWII are perfect and even the vehicles during the war seem to be well author backed. The German novelist Hans Hellmut Kirst paid homage to his country’s past in his attention to detail and veracity of events. This is categorically well translated to the screen by Joseph Kessel. 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.
‘The Night of the Generals’ is not a hard story to follow, the skillful manner which the director Litvak crafts the events are very effective, the trials don’t get too convoluted and the viewer can easily understand everything that’s going on. Although, it does help if you have some knowledge of the history of WWII. Every scene in this movie is done perfectly from members of the Resistance firing at the military vehicles arriving at the scene of the first murder to a raid at a French bar where members of the Resistance might be hiding. There’s also a romantic angle to the movie as Corporal Hartmann has an affair with General Von Seyditz-Gabler’s daughter Ulrike (Pettit) and circumstances keep them apart throughout most of the movie. Mainly, her mother wants to set her up with General Tanz who seems to have no interest in the girl.
Also the dialogues are worth follow and interestingly- It never drops 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?
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.
Lastly I would like to mention the cinematography-it’s 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.
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.
All in all, this movie has a repeat watchability, and lots to admire about ‘The Night of the Generals’. Respite of the suspense unfolds and the story been told has a sense of old world charm. It’s still interesting to see the case disclose and justice finally coming to the deserving party. But if it’s the first time you’ve watched this movie, you are in for a real treat. It’s much better than some of the garbage that passes for entertainment today, this is the real deal and I bet my friends- this is a movie that’s worth the time…
- Directed by Anatole Litvak
- Produced by Sam Spiegel
- Screenplay by Joseph Kessel & Paul Dehn
- Based on the Novel ‘The Night of the Generals’ Hans Hellmut Kirst & an incident written by James Hadley Chase
- Casting: Peter O’Toole; Omar Sharif; Tom Courtenay; Donald Pleasence; Joanna Pettet & Philippe Noiret
- Music by Maurice Jarre
- Cinematography: Henri Decaë
- Editing by: Alan Osbiston
- Studio: Horizon Pictures & Films nor
- Distributed by Columbia Pictures
- Release dates: 29 January 1967 (UK)
- Running time: 145 minutes
- Country: United Kingdom & France
- Language: English