In that continuously foggier faraway place, known as my youth, resides an unattainable experience, entitled THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS. It was a 1967 big-time movie (in my past, it’s ALWAYS a movie), unattainable because it was a pre-ratings code “adults only” picture that even grown-ups approached with caution. It should have a blockbuster, what with the cast, the bestselling sourcework and can’t-miss delectable narrative poison bon-bons of murder, sex and Nazis. The decades have been kinder than its 1960s audiences, who were more content binging on The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Blow-Up, Alfie, etc., and moving increasingly away from WWII-related pics (although The Dirty Dozen, Where Eagles Dare and Patton would momentarily provide box-office false security). Oh, let me finish this opening by wrapping up what I earlier indicated: that this movie is an engrossing, unfairly maligned humdinger odyssey of madness, obsession and first-rate movie-making. It’s also been given a grand Blu-Ray (albeit limited) showcase from the Twilight Time folks, in association with Columbia Pictures Industries.
THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, in its near-two-and-a-half-hour running time, wastes not a second. In an apartment building of Nazi-occupied Poland, a woman’s screams awaken and alert a fellow boarder, who immediately hides for cover. He sees a German officer quickly retreating out of the residence with one identifiable memory etched in the frightened citizen’s brain: the officer was wearing the uniform of a general.
Soon, it’s discovered that the woman in question was a prostitute, disemboweled and further butchered in a way only Jack the Ripper could love. The investigating German constabulary is initially stunned by the witness’s absolute claim that a general did it. Of course, the Nazi high command can’t have any of this – one of their finest involved in a heinous violation of humanity. Talk about the pot calling the kettle batshit crazy!
The officer, Major Grau (also known as Omar Sharif), one of those sympathetic Nazis that 1950s and 1960s novels adored so much, apparently went to Reichstag training school with Marlon Brando’s character from The Young Lions. Deep down he knows that the master race is a losing one, that they’re barbaric and will likely lose the war. He’s so decent ya almost wanna hug him; in fact, he ends up working with the French Resistance (personified by the great Philippe Noiret), swapping political favors, aka lives.
Grau’s unbiased investigation narrows the culprits down to three viable suspects. General von Seidlitz-Gabler, an ass-kissing, goose-stepping disreputable cad who firmly believes in “family values” (and we know what THAT means), slimily portrayed by Charles Gray. Then there’s intellectual Donald Pleasence, who makes the list…well, simply because he’s Donald Pleasence. Actually, Pleasence, or General Kahlenberge, is another reasonable Nazi, who is biding his time until he can burn those filed volumes of papers that all Nazis aspire to do with a vengeance; long story short: Kahlenberge realizes that the Third Reich is bunk, and was probably planning his exit strategy as far back as the Beer Hall Putsch.
Blofelds aside, there’s a third candidate for Herr Loony Tunes, and that’s Hitler’s fair-haired boy General Tanz, scarily enacted by Peter O’Toole. Tanz seems the least probable, as laboriously dismembering one woman at a time goes against his anally efficient persona (he not only dots his “i”s, he pokes ’em out). Tanz likes killing en masse, as evidenced by one harrowing sequence where he and his goon squad annihilate an entire neighborhood. (“Are you using perfume?” asks Tanz of Grau, a coded gay slur reference revealing the general’s disdain for any intelligent person of integrity and/or supporter of the Arts).
Things take a brutal turn as the three generals move and groove from Poland to France (thus involving the aforementioned participation of Inspector Noiret – a cold-case expert), and the serial killings of hookers escalate. Adding to this conundrum is the arrival of Tom Courtenay – yet ANOTHER sympathetic Teutonic Bavarian, whose democratic vent is underlined by the fact that he loves music. Courtenay finds solace in the arms of von Seidlitz-Gabler’s gorgeous daughter Ulrike (Joanna Petit), fortunately a progressive liberal (seriously, were the generals three the ONLY miserable bastards in the deutsche arm of the Axis?).
It all comes together in a rousing finale that takes years to solve.
THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is one of those movies that is so nastily entertaining that it’s almost a shame to enjoy it. Well, be shameless! It’s a 1960s masterpiece of sexual frustration, Freudian nightmares, maniacal perversions and, in essence, triumph of the swill. And all in Technicolor and Panavision.
Everything about this movie is letter-perfect, from the tense direction by veteran Anatole Litvak (with uncredited assistant work by a 27-year-old Andrzej Zulawski) to the script (a stellar collaborative effort adapted for the screen by Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn, based on the novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, AND, an incident recounted by James Hadley Chase; furthermore, additional dialog and structure was provided by no less than Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson). It’s the acting, however, that elevates this from an entry in the Ilsa series, primarily by O’Toole. Uptight sociopath that he is, his General Tanz relishes visiting locked up confiscated decadent art, and, basically mentally and spiritually masturbating to the works of Van Gogh (sweating, moaning and shaking harder than Katharine Hepburn at a Spencer Tracy tribute).
And while we have already dropped a number of enviable names, there are way more to celebrate in this star-studded opus. Coral Browne, John Gregson, Nigel Stock, Yves Brainville, Michael Goodliffe, Gordon Jackson, Patrick Allen, Valentine Dyall, Harry Andrews, and, in a cameo, Juliette Greco, all appear and valiantly pay lip service to them bad ole daze. Plus, there’s Christopher Plummer, popping up in one scene as Rommel (for which the actor received a Rolls-Royce).
The production, gargantuan in that best 1960s sprawling reserved-seat-only way, is spectacular – seemingly costing more than the war itself (locations throughout Poland and France add that sinister touch of realism, being only twenty-two years after the actual occupation). The picture was produced by Sam Spiegel for his Horizon company, which had previously partnered with Columbia on Lawrence of Arabia. This is crucial to mention, as per part of Spiegel’s contractual deal with O’Toole and Sharif, they still owed him a picture from the original Lawrence deal, when they were both unknowns. Thus, the by-now superstars were paid the same rates as they had received on the (no pun) Lean picture. To further bring home the point, Donald Pleasence’s paycheck for GENERALS was double of both O’Toole’s and Sharif’s combined.
Sharif was originally skittish about appearing in the movie, never wanting to be involved with any project concerning Nazis (let alone playing one). Nevertheless his pal, O’Toole, intervened with an “Oh come on, it’ll be fun.” So he acquiesced (as discussed above, it wasn’t for the money).
O’Toole himself came about as close to giving Litvak a coronary from the get-go as is possible. This was during the actor’s prime years of inebriation, or, in his own words, those glorious days when “…one went for a beer at one’s local in Paris and woke up in Corsica,” a scenario that reportedly occurred with alarming regularity.
O’Toole arrived on the location so pissed that he could barely stand up, giggling uncontrollably. Litvak, who had prepped the set for the star’s first scene, quietly saw his career evaporate. As assistants fought to dress O’Toole in his Tanz togs, the director contemplated suicide (and not just his). He weakly called, “Action,” and was amazed at what transpired. O’Toole straightened up and gave a splendid reading of his speech. When he was done, a stunned Litvak, briefly speechless, at last yelled, “Cut!” whereupon O’Toole fell to the floor in drunken stupor, laughing all the way. This was essentially the routine for the entire shoot. To paraphrase Kenneth Mars in The Producers, sloshed or sober, Tanz can dance the pants off both Churchill AND Hitler!
THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS, for all its main star penny-pinching, still cost a handsome piece of coin, and, upon its 1967 release, failed to recoup its primary budget (the movie’s $5.2 million budget reaped only a little more than half than upon its original run). Don’t let that stop you from purchasing this riveting mystery-thriller. As often is the case, time has proven its audience wrong.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS is a kraut-keeper. The 1080p scope compositions pop with crystal-clear, dark colors, as lushly rendered from the superb palette of the brilliant Henri Decae. The excellent music score comes by way of another Lawrence holdover, Maurice Jarre (and it’s a pip, accessible as an IST). The sensational look of the picture is designed by still another cinematic icon, Alexandre Trauner.
Hey, if ya ever needed to see a movie where the Resistance trumps Nazi rule, THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS fills the bill (but, remember, it’s a limited edition of 3000, so when they’re gone…they’re gone). It sometimes takes a while, but it DOES happen.
THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries. CAT # TWILIGHT 156-BR. SRP: $29.95.