BR: Night of the Generals, The (1967)

July 21, 2015 | By


NightOfTheGenerals_BRFilm: Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released:  June 9, 2015

Genre:  War / Thriller

Synopsis: A Major refuses to back down in his investigation of a murderous General during the years preceding Valkyrie, the infamous plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944.

Special Features:  Isolated Stereo Music Track / Theatrical Trailer + Teaser Treailer / Liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.




After the massive international success of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), producer Sam Spiegel took a little longer to find the right material for his next project, and while it took 4 years for the next wave of films to materialize, his next trio of productions – The Chase (1966), The Night of the Generals (1967), and The Happening (1967) – were a mixed bag, albeit equally packed with star power and classy production values, but they haven’t aged nearly as well as his best (and prior) work.

Generals is a stunning production that reunited Spiegel with three of his former Lawrence teammates – stars Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, and composer Maurice Jarre – but its source material feels like a highly problematic novel that a handful of writers struggled to flatten into a fluid story, and give adequate screen time to some of Britain’s top character actors of the era.

The basic story in Hans Hellmust Kirst’s novel deals with a contemporary French Interpol detective tracking down a former Nazi general responsible for murdering a ‘good’ Major then in the process of apprehending a high-ranking general for a pair of brutal, sadistic slayings of prostitutes.

The bulk of the story involves lengthy flashbacks to 1942 Warsaw and 1944 Paris, leading up to the failed attempt by generals to assassinate Hitler and surrender Germany to the Allies in Operation Valkyrie. The contemporary scenes initially appear as jarring, highly discontinuous edits before the Interpol detective (Philippe Noiret) begins to take over the present day narrative, and while it’s rather inventive to see veteran director Anatole Litvak employ modernist edits (something main title designer Robert Brownjohn riffs quite cleverly by flipping between framed and squeezed imagery), it all comes off as rather clumsy, perhaps because Noiret isn’t initially introduced in the first clips, and when he’s first seen, remains silent and shot from behind.

That approach may invoke a sense of mystery, but the edits also disrupt what starts off as a highly intriguing mystery in which good German Major Grau is the central figure in a period-set serial killer thriller. When the Valkyrie plot eases in, Grau’s pushed to the margins, only to re-emerge in an improbable military transfer to Paris, where he’s able to continue his investigation when a second prostitute is found dead with similarly butchered privates.

The other grievous issue with Spiegel’s super-production is its 145 min. running time which grows deadly after the first third, meandering largely because there’s an imposed romance between a good general’s outspoken daughter (Joanna Pettet) and a fake war hero, Corp. Hartmann, who’s ultimately set up as the killer’s fall guy (Tom Courtenay, Sharif’s co-star from Doctor Zhivago). Pettet’s Ulrike really has no reason to exist in the film except as a sliver character who serves as a link in the finale when Interpol finally hones in on the identity of the serial killer. Generals could’ve been a leaner 2 hour historical thriller, but the need for a romance adds extra bulk to what’s essentially a male-dominated tale of war savagery, indifference, artifice, and murder.

Author Kirst (08/15 Parts 1 and 2) reportedly grafted the character of brutal Gen. Tanz (O’Toole) from a chapter of James Hadley Chase’s book The Wary Transgressor (1952), hence the peculiar film credit “based on an incident written by”), an appeasement strategy by studio Columbia, whereas co-writer Paul Dehn is given a separate credit of “additional dialogue” which infers a big overhaul and junking / streamlining material originally adapted by Joseph Kessel (The Army of Shadows / L’armée des ombres).

However Kirst’s novel was ultimately distilled into a period-flipping thriller, Generals is a strange concoction that does maintain heavy intrigue for its first third, with O’Toole providing a rather fascinating take on a brutal general who’s also a germaphobe; stands in his moving limo like Hitler being driven through Nuremberg; and is more than a bit twitchy when confronted with explosively colored Degenerate Art.

There’s also a panoply of generals whom Grau suspects as the serial killers. Donald Pleasence is great in a vital supporting role as Gen. Kahlenberge (although it’s amazing how well he’s able to coordinate Valkyrie, given the bottles of schnapps consumed in almost every scene); smarmy Charles Gray has more wiggle room to deliver a realistic, opportunistic portrayal of the Nazi-appointed Parisian governor Gen. von Seidlitz-Gabler; and there’s a pair of peculiar cameos: Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Rommel, and Juliette Greco playing (what else?) a singer in a subterranean cabaret that’s raided in another of Pettet’s filler scenes.

Shot largely in Warsaw during the Cold War, there’s a stellar scene showing the decimation of a Jewish ghetto that’s vividly dramatized with blazing pyrotechnics placed directly behind O’Toole, and when the Valkyrie plot is put into motion, it re-energizes the film for a few more reels. Henri Decae’s flowing camera glides through an assortment of locales when not capturing a rich saturation of colours, especially during low-light scenes, and Alexandre Trauner’s production design is near-perfect, making up for some weird hairstyles and coloring that seem even more artificial in Twilight Time’s crisp Blu-ray.

Maurice Jarre’s score is okay – it’s another stirring assembly of military-styled themes and variations with heavy brass – and has been isolated in stereo on a separate track.

A Franco-British co-production, Generals was one of many WWII  set super-productions that permeated the sixties, often packed with massive stars playing a variety of morally good, bad, and gray characters tied to pivotal historic events or periods. Plummer had just starred in Triple Cross (1966), and Pleasence had a memorable role in the sprawling The Great Escape (1963). (Odd trivia: both Pleasence and Gray would soon portray James Bond’s nemesis Bloefeld in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever, respectively.)

In her liner notes, Julie Kirgo is pretty fair-minded towards this flawed yet fascinating film (which contains uncredited script doctoring by Gore Vidal), and uses the opportunity to salute both Spiegel and the ‘producer’s producer,’ the classic cigar-chomping autocrat (the 4 minute trailer is evenly divided between ballyhooing the stars and Spiegel’s accomplishments) who nevertheless got the job done in spite of leaving a few egos busted up in his wake. Unlike the film’s cast, Spiegel’s career would slowly wind down, producing just a handful of films before retiring: the The Happening (1967), Nicholas and Alexandra (1971), The Last Tycoon (1976), and Betrayal (1983).

Director Litvak’s sixties output included Goodbye Again (1962) and Five Miles to Midnight (1962), and after The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun (1970), he would retire after a long and distinguished career in Hollywood, which includes the classics Blues in the Night (1941), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), The Snake Pit (1948), and Anastasia (1956).

Henri Decae’s subsequent war-themed films include Castle Keep (1969) and the Nazi sleaze classic The Boys from Brazil (1978). Interestingly, composer Jarre had just scored the French epic Is Paris Burning? (1966) for director René Clément, a film that dealt with the Nazi withdrawal from France in 1944. Jarre would also score Spiegel’s The Last Tycoon.

Co-writer Paul Dehn is best known for the original Planet of the Apes sequels, but the skilled writer / adapter also penned the James Bond classic Goldfinger (1964), the superb Cold War drama The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), and Murder on the Orient Express (1974).

The story of Operation Valkyrie and its main proponent, Claus von Stauffenberg, has been depicted in many films and teleplays, including the rival German films Der 20. Juli and Es geschah am 20. Juli (both 1955), the TV movie The Plot to Kill Hitler (1990), and Valkyrie (2008) starring Tom Cruise.



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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