The Night of the Generals
directed by Anatole Litvak
written by Paul Dehn and Joseph Kessel
based on the novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst
starring Peter O?Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Pleasence, Joanna Pettet, Phillippe Noiret, Charles Gray, Coral Browne, Christopher Plummer
The July 20, 1944 plot to kill the Führer is the backdrop in this sordid tale of lust, sex murder, and the Nazi push to conquer the entire known universe.
The film opens with a ghastly murder. A prostitute has been butchered?stabbed over one hundred times?by a General in the German army. The only witness was hiding under the stairs and saw the tell-tale red stripes of the General?s trousers. Major Grau (Sharif) takes the case and learns that three Generals do not have alibis for the night in question. These include the impossibly dapper, and exquisitely high strung General Tanz (O?Toole). Tanz personifies the classic duplicity of a person who projects a precise image of themselves in public while utterly abandoning themselves to a keenly opposing lifestyle while in private. He?s a clean freak, obsessed with order, and must have his bath water at precisely 31 degrees Fahrenheit. He?s also transfixed by Vincent Van Gogh?s ?decadent? self titled work know alternatively as ?Vincent In Flames? and drinks and smokes extensively, something he hides in his clean-cut public image. He?s very fond of art and although he appears exceedingly uncomfortable out in public, there is a direct sense that he is drawn to the sounds, the lights, and the smells of life as it is lived by those not afraid of the dark.
The murder takes over twenty years to solve and it?s no mystery because we see the poor bastard do another one in close to the end. This would be the prime suspect all along, the goodly General Tanz who manages to make it seem as if his orderly Lance Cpl. Kurt Hartmann has committed the crime with some deft maneuvering. The greatly nervous Tanz goes into trances on occasion and especially when he?s gazing at the Van Gogh Painting. It?s supposed to symbol something regarding the madness inherent in the painting and how this triggers the incipient madness lying withing the General who is entirely mad throughout the film.
In many ways this is a film, at least partially, about the relationship between extreme order and dissolution and perhaps how in certain individuals they are forever intertwined. General Tanz is an example of a rigid, exacting type who must have everything precisely as he requires it at all times. But also, he?s fond of drink and manages to put off his obvious discomfort and convinces Hartmann to pick up a whore from inside a bar while he waits in his car. Of course he then uses the fact that others at the bar will have seen Hartmann and not him with the girl as a brilliant ploy to pin the blame on the younger Colonel. He?s not too thrilled with much of what passes for fun in the towns but he seems to like voyeuristically experiencing all of the filth and commonness found in one of these places. He enjoys watching the wretched have their fill at their holy troughs without actually getting his hands dirty. He wears gloves while he smokes and the effect is quite startling.
While General Tanz is shown about Paris, the plot to snuff Hitler is undertaken by a great number of the remaining Generals. Chief amongst these is Maj. General Kahlenberg (Pleasence) who secretly reveals his intentions throughout the early part of the film. We don?t get a clear picture of what is about to unfold until the second half when Kahlenberg openly mentions it. It?s an effective ploy on the part of the film makers because one feels conspiratorial before even quite knowing what is in the works. It?s difficult, to be sure, for most of the audience to relate to Tanz as he is essentially a psychopath albeit with a strange generous side. On one hand he?s doling out foodstuffs for the kiddies and then he turns about and scorches nearly the whole town just because he can. He?s a man with extremely cruel appetites and these almost always go along with an epicurean which can never be fully satisfied by merely beautiful or exotic things. There always has to be a taste of real, toxic horror in order for him to be truly alive. When he?s in control of other lives he himself finally feels as if he is not merely made of wax but fiercely, demonstrably alive.
Major Grau refuses to give up on the case and flat out accuses General Tanz of committing the murders. This only causes Tanz to call him out for supporting the plot. Tanz isn?t confronted with his deeds until twenty years later after yet another murder of a prostitute. He is tracked down by Inspector Morand (Noiret) to a conference in his honor. Naturally, he plays the same devilish cool he does throughout the film and refuses to accept defeat.
There is many pejorative references to prostitutes and their profession in this film. It seems that the film makers want to create a certain disjunct between the lofty pretensions of the Generals and their staff and the whores who they consider are polluting the street with their abject foulness. They are treated like dogs to be kicked, hardly worth troubling oneself over with an investigation. But Grau is unlike the rest. He?s dedicated to finding justice wherever it lies and will not abandon a case merely because the victim is felt to be a second class citizen by many in the upper brass.
Peter O?Toole perhaps is far too elegant and finely clothed in this film. This is the film where certain critics would have all Nazis be grunting, barely articulate fiends hardly capable of appreciating art. But O?Toole is mesmeric in this role and brings out the aesthete Nazi type in full swing. He is appealing which makes people uncomfortable because he is presenting a beautiful, thrilling Nazi to the world which when this film was made was only 22 years from the end of the war. He?s impossibly dashing and incredibly cool throughout the film; he certainly makes for the mannered, precise, hyper-polite sensible creature that the perfectly regulated General we all imagine inhabits with tremendous ease and will. Donald Pleasence has a sniveling quality about him in this film. His character is the antithesis of Tanz. He?s awkward, a bit clumsy, and far too official in his presentation. He appears as if he?s never had a really good time in his whole life. Tom Courtenay gives his character a strong, sturdy effectiveness through his gestures and maneuverings. He?s as controlled as Tanz but it doesn?t quite come off as so aristocratic. He?s still a but rugged and projects actual charm rather than an impenetrable fortress of perfect style and affectation.
Overall, this film resonates as a sensational plot film colored blood red by the gouging of a trio of harlots. The cast is exceedingly effective at bringing these characters vividly to live. Still, no matter what else, this is Peter O?Toole?s film. He commands it from the second he is seen in that uniform replete with long black leather coat. He looks so foreboding and sexualized it?s impossible not to get just a bit of a jolt from apprehending this character. Still, that has everything to do with O?Toole?s precision while portraying the character. He moves his body in an orderly manner that expresses order projected as wholly ideal by the state. Yet, truly, at his core, he?s a degenerate who represents everything the state is trying to eradicate. He?s beyond decadence with his blood lust. Or rather he takes decadence to its logical extreme. He?s cold, reserved, and well spoken. He has never been married for obvious reasons; he is married to the haughty ideals he embodies when he puts on the uniform. In it he is transformed into something vital and very unlike the person he is without it. He is not a stranger to himself.