Sunday, 20 June 2010

The Night of the Generals (1967)

I have always liked Peter O'Toole's film appearances, not just because of his real beauty in his youth (Florence of Arabia anyone?), but also because of the 'edge' with which he endows most of his roles. It is for this reason twice as terrifying to see the repressed stillness that he brings to his character in this film; the man he portrays is obviously an out and out nutter, but one who strains to keep his emotions in check.

The story opens in occupied Warsaw in 1942 with the brutal murder of a prostitute. An eyewitness saw the red stripes of a German general's trousers descending the staircase from her room and only three of the generals stationed in the city at the time have no alibi for the night in question: humanistic but haughty Donald Pleasence, old-Junker mentality Charles Gray, a man adept at safely sitting on the fence, and the young, Hitler-favourite O'Toole. It is no real spoiler to guess which of these is the culprit since this is more or less obvious from the start. The strength of the film is to follow how the fates of these three generals intertwine and to guess when and how the truth will out, especially when another murder occurs in Paris two years later -- again when all three are based there. O'Toole's "Lawrence" co-star Omar Sharif (forever known as Cairo Fred in this household) plays a German military policeman convinced that a murderer must pay for his crime, however grand his army position, whose attempts at unravelling the truth are thwarted at every turn by his brass targets.

Add to this fine cast a role for Tom Courtenay as a cowardly lance-corporal who has won an Iron Cross for supposed bravery, purely as a propaganda exercise for being the only survivor of his company. He is involved in an intense love affair with Joanna Pettet, the high-born daughter of Gray and his haughty wife Coral Browne. Finally there is a major part for French acting stalwart Phillipe Noiret as a Paris police inspector who shares Sharif's beliefs in justice. Somewhat surprisingly this movie directed by Anatole Litvak is not particularly well-rated in my various guidebooks, but it seems to have its fans among IMDb users with a rating of 7+. Part of the problem is that at nearly two and a half hours the film is indeed a little bloated and might have been sharper with tighter editing and story-telling. The recreated Valkyrie sub-plot to assassinate Hitler is played out in unnecessary detail and a cameo by Christopher Plummer as Rommel adds very little. However the strength of the acting keeps the viewer riveted and boredom is not really a factor here. One theoretically unneeded scene early on where O'Toole's icy general systematically destroys an entire Warsaw district, apparently just for the hell of it, gives us an eerie insight into the depth of his madness and his belief in his own superiority and invincibility. That it takes another 25-odd years for him to face his nemesis makes for a gripping saga.
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