Twilight Time could never have predicted the recent passing of Omar Sharif, star of their latest Blu-ray release, The Night of the Generals. Directed by Anatole Litvak, this WWII murder mystery sees Sharif paired up again with Peter O’Toole, his co-star in Lawrence of Arabia (1962); both stars were contractually bound to make this, and were reportedly only satisfied with their per diem. Their dissatisfaction is warranted, as Litvak ponderously directs a rather compelling narrative in the most protracted way possible. Despite an all-star cast of Hollywood’s leading, mostly British, actors of the 1960s, The Night of the Generals strength shows up in spurts.
A prostitute and German undercover agent is murdered in 1940’s Poland. Major Grau (Sharif) is tasked with solving the crime, but meets resistance when the murderer is one of three generals in Hitler’s army.
Litvak and the trio of screenwriters attached pack quite a bit into over two hours, yet the whole thing moves at a slog. The murdered prostitute establishes the hierarchy between the German high command (generals, majors, corporals), but, too often, it seems like an afterthought, particularly when the plot shifts towards the failed “Project Valkyrie” wherein several Nazis attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Nearly an hour is devoted to this, and it is fascinating when the likes of Donald Pleasance and Charles “it’s just a jump to the left” Gray are allowed to run things. Grau is, at best, a fly in the ointment, cropping up when the plot is necessary and reminding people, “Hey, didn’t we start this with a murder?”
In all honesty, the murdered prostitute wants to establish itself as a MacGuffin, a la the murdered chauffeur from The Big Sleep, who not even Raymond Chandler could figure out the murderer (and he wrote the book!). What’s interesting and frustrating in equal measure is the various reasons why the woman was murdered. Grau makes a point of emphasizing her dual nature – pro and government operative. Was she murdered because of the pillow talk she knew? Or because she was a double agent of sorts? The fact that we never discover things lets us draw our own conclusions, and renders her murder irrelevant at the same time.
The script tries hard to make all of this look intentional, and that helps when you have an amazing cast assembled. On-screen first, in a world gone mad Sharif’s Grau boasts a major conscious. Despite his high placement in the German military, for him there’s no pedestal safe from murder; “German officers can commit murder, like anyone else.” Grau envisions justice on a higher, ancient plain, more deeply entrenched than anything a passing political ideology can infuse. Right and wrong, for him, are black and white. It is this humanizing and equalizing that puts him in danger throughout the film – unfortunately the film never maintains the necessary level of suspense for you to care whether he’ll solve the mystery.
Of course, the futility of his quest is bound up into a pointed discussion about the futility of preventing the events of WWII. The German courts held several trials against Nazi war criminals during the time of this film’s release, and the script makes no bones criticizing the men involved, as well as emphasizing the endeavor as pointless. Like Kahlenberge’s (Pleasance) foiled assassination, nothing could prevent the horrors of the war, and even while the climax involves the murderer maybe being brought to justice, the dour ending implies there is no justice in these proceedings, or in the war’s events.
There’s also no room for heart, as evidenced by naive Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay) and his romance with Ulrike (Joanna Pettet). Never overpowering the narrative like some war films, their relationship gives us a glimpse of hope for the future, which is dashed by the conclusion. The fact that the Corporal becomes the murderer’s scapegoat enhances the privilege enjoyed by the Nazi high command, and their untouchable qualities.
While Grau fights for justice, Peter O’Toole’s a manipulative madman. While not as sadistic as Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, O’Toole’s General Tanz keeps the local children in snacks so they’ll like him, while simultaneously burning down a city. Grau finds him repugnant, a “maniac.” Grau says, when asked about his dogged determination to solve the murders, that “My madness is on a smaller, more secular scale.” He wants to solve them because, although it won’t do much in the long term, it’s just. Tanz, by contrast, blindly drinks the Nazi Kool-Aid and wants to take over the world. No one else could have showcased the character of Tanz like O’Toole whose’ cold, blue eyes reflect nothing but chaos.
With such deep characterization, the script and direction are bulky and pedestrian. This was Litvak’s penultimate film in a career that included the likes of Anastasia (1956) and The Snake Pit (1948), Those were pure Hollywood depictions of history and science, respectively, yet Litvak gives us nothing fascinating to watch in 2015, let alone in the early dawning of the new cinema that would sweep the late 1960s into the 1970s. Most of the film is shot in static two-shots, with close-ups that shake as if the cameraman is struggling to turn the camera. There are some beautiful shot compositions, but they’re usually there to make very direct statements and are forgotten.
And for a serious film, this has one of the weirdest soundtracks I’ve heard, composed by the legendary Maurice Jarre. Much of it sounds like “wa-wah” music you’d hear in a sitcom, improper for a serious film like this. The jaunty mix of bells and trumpets sounds like something ripped from It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, or at least giving audiences’ the belief that Hogan will defeat Colonel Klink by the end….wrong general.
While certainly worthy of praise in the acting category, The Night of the Generals is a hard sell for a serious topic. The murder mystery and assassination plot are all compelling, but they’re squandered in party politics and lumbering direction which gives no reason for our compulsion. Sharif and O’Toole are magnificent, and it’s just a shame they’re not on-screen longer.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.