As fascinating as nasty gossip, but keep your finger on the fast-forward button
Apr 1, 2011
Germany Army officer Grau, a colonel in Wehrmacht Intelligence, is meeting with a French policeman, Inspector Morand, in Paris. The year is 1944. For two years Grau has been investigating the psychopathic murder of a prostitute that took place in Warsaw. The suspects are three Wehrmacht general officers. Says Inspector Morand to Grau, as he wonders why Grau is so persistent in his investigation. "Murder is the occupation of generals."
"Then let us say," Grau replies, "what is admirable on the large scale is monstrous on the small. Since we must give medals to mass murderers, why not give justice to the small entrepreneur."
The Night of the Generals is a mess. It sprawls all over the place, from Poland to Paris to Germany; from 1942 to 1944 to 1963. We have everything from warfare in cities to the 1944 attempt on Hitler's life to the fiction of Rommel's part in the Fuhrer plot, to the rise of neo-Nazism in post-war Germany, to definitions of decadent art. We see the tenderness of young love and the sexual sleaze of frozen-faced sadism. What on earth makes this two-hour-and-twenty-eight-minute movie...if you use the fast-forward button often enough...so much fun?
For me, it's two things. First, it's the schadenfreude-like satisfaction of watching so many members of the elite about to get theirs, all in the context of the rancid Nazi stew of ambitious senior military officers and the morally corrupt German high society that fed on each other. When you combine that with all those strutting uniforms with red collar tabs and red stripes down the pants, black batons, leather coats, boots up to the knees, it's hard to remember you're watching the leaders of a brutally effective army and not members of a Ruritanian farce. I wonder who the Nazis hired to design their uniforms?
The second thing is the skill of the secondary actors. More about them in a moment.
The three generals the then Major Grau (Omar Sharif) in Warsaw suspects of murder are General Tanz (Peter O'Toole), youngest division general in the Wehrmacht and a brutally effective general; General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), a senior officer in Warsaw who lives well, appreciates his lineage and who doesn't take chances. He has his wife and daughter with him. The wife (Coral Browne) is an even more dedicated Nazi than her husband. And there is Major General Klaus Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasence), von Seidlitz-Gabler's chief of staff. He seems at times to be human, drinks probably too much, and as we learn later, is up to his ears in conspiracy.
There is no doubt as to the killer once one looks even cursorily at the casting of the three generals. But then the murder of the Polish prostitute, repeated by the murder of a Paris prostitute in 1944 when the three generals have been assigned to Paris and meet Grau again, is hardly the point of the movie. The Night of the Generals is designed, I think, simply to let us look at corruption and destiny in high Nazi places. It doesn't succeed because the movie takes on so many things it wants to cover. Still, it's always good to see those who think they are our betters slip into the mud.
As the lead suspect and star of the movie, Peter O'Toole playing General Tanz gives one of the weirdest and poorest performances in a career full of weird performances. O'Toole gives us a fugitive from Madame Tussaud's, complete with waxy face, staring eyes, slightly open mouth and all the subtlety of a sharp knife. The performance is so odd and exotic that I felt nothing for the character, bad or good. I suspect that the director, Anatole Litvak, occaisionally had to pinch pinch O'Toole’s cheek to see if he were alive. If it weren't for the inherently morbid fascination with Nazi high doings and the skill of some of the other actors, O'Toole would have, in my opinion, sunk this ship.
But what first-rate actors there are: Donald Pleasence, so insignificant looking and yet so subtle and skilled an actor. The movie becomes interesting every time he shows up. Charles Gray, not yet in the really hammy part of his acting career, does a wonderful job as the self-serving, shrewd fence sitter. Coral Browne excelled in imperious and selfish members of the upper crust and she doesn't let us down as a Nazi. Philippe Noiret as Inspector Morand, who finally in 1965 is able to repay a debt to Grau and bring a psychopath to justice, is just fine. Even Tom Courtenay as a German corporal does an interesting job as a young man who comes into contact with Tanz and pays a price. At first I thought he was miscast, but then I realized he was the only member of the cast who seemed normal.
Great chunks of the movie could have been edited out with no one noticing...but then two-thirds of the movie would have been on the cutting room floor. The Night of the Generals is like nasty gossip, fun at first, eventually tiresome...but then you wouldn't mind a little more.