The Night Of The Generals

THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, if you were going to assign it a military rank, would be regrettably demoted down to Captain. In that less-exalted leadership position it’s worth saluting for the armament of some of its production values and the parade value generated by a battle-honed cast. But military justice is severe, and our court martial decision is due to a script that misfires with subplots and abrupt time-shifts that stall narrative advance. There are intelligence blunders like giving the enemy (the audience) advance notice (of who’s guilty) that defeats any surprise element. Numerous tactical foul-ups incur credibility casualties in slack direction, lethargic pacing, some iffy secondary performances, pesky period details, an awful music score and the basic absurdity of the plot. Critics fired point blank salvos, and the paying public went missing in action. All that after a discordant shoot with unhappy actors.

Nazi-occupied Poland, 1942. The grotesque sex murder of a prostitute in Warsaw implicates a German general. Justice-bent ‘Major Grau’ (Omar Sharif) of the Abwehr narrows his suspects to three men of distinctly different temperaments. Grau’s initially stymied investigation renews in 1944 Paris, and another savage murder, occurring as the Allies approach the city. Flash-forward decades to postwar-Germany where a similar crime causes a friend of Grau’s, a French Interpol inspector, to track down those involved in the original cases.

Directed by Anatole Litvak (The Snake Pit, Decision Before Dawn, Anastasia), produced on medium-big scale by Sam Spiegel, the cluttered screenplay by Paul Dehn and Joseph Kessel (with Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson pitching in sans credit) was based on the 1962 novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, with a nod to a subplot from another novel written in 1952 by James Hadley Chase.

Location filming was done in Warsaw, Paris, Munich and Hamburg, and Sharif (fresh off the titanic success of Doctor Zhivago, a fine actor but rather unlikely German) was just part of a packed cast. The three suspects were Peter O’Toole (first-billed), Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray. Tom Courtenay and Joanna Pettet were assigned a clumsy romantic subplot. Another subplot involves the July 20 plot to kill Hitler and employs brief appearances from Christopher Plummer (as Rommel), Harry Andrews and Juliette Greco.

The acting varies from casually confident (Sharif, Pleasence, Gray, most of the others), to awkward (Courtenay and Pettet feel injected straight from the 60s) to feeble (Philippe Noiret as the Interpol agent, his halting English nearly sounds dubbed). A big problem is O’Toole’s quirky maniac; it’s fun to watch but so obvious it undercuts logic. He and Sharif were obliged by an old contract to do the film and that dated back to when, as unknowns, they did Lawrence Of Arabia for Spiegel. Now they were major stars, but the contract held them to relative pittance pay, and they chafed.

Spiegel repeatedly undercut director Litvak. Despite a good deal of money thrown into sets, uniforms, crowd scenes and the big action setpiece in a section of Warsaw, using Russian-built tanks (Poland then still part of the Soviet Bloc) the movie still too often has a static look. Script contributor Vidal went so far as to suggest O’Toole’s over-the-top performance amounted to sabotage to get back at Spiegel. How much you buy the self-serving sniping of viper Vidal is up to you. Maybe O’Toole rebuffed a pass? Bien brûler mon short: how dare we! Badly hurting scene after scene is a wretched score from, of all people, Maurice Jarre. That’s a dismal thing to hear say, since monsieur Jarre created some truly wonderful soundtracks (he’d just done two great jobs on The Professionals and Is Paris Burning?) but, like us all, he was also capable of the occasional dud (Ryan’s Daughter), so maybe his muse wasn’t inspired by the bleak and distasteful nature of the material.

Made for $5,200,000, the $6,000,000 gross was a cold bath, 45th place in the States. With Coral Browne (excellent as Gray’s nasty wife, Pettet’s unforgiving mother), John Gregson, Nigel Stock, Gordon Jackson, Veronique Vendell and Michael Goodlife. After investing 148 minutes in corrupted company it all ends with a shrug.

* German author Hans Hellmut Kirst wrote 46 books, mostly about the 3rd Reich (he was a Luftwaffe vet and former Nazi) that sold over 12,000,000 copies. The borrowing in the screenplay (and in Kirst’s book as well, provoking a suit) was from James Hadley Chase’s “The Wary Transgressor”, one of 90 thrillers that gentleman wrote under five pseudonyms, with no less than 49 being turned into movies in a host of countries.

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