Literally Speaking: The Night of the Generals

A murder mystery that starts in German occupied Warsaw in 1942 and ends in Hamburg in 1965, and along the way encompasses Operation Valkyrie, theplot by top German officers to assassinate Hitler, and the inspiration for the forthcoming Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie . But it’s the murder of a prostitute that occupies Major Grau, an intelligence officer with an abiding desire to see justice done, no matter how low the victim or how high the culprit. Grau’s three suspects are Generals Kahlenberg, von Seidlitz-Gabler and Tanz, and each has something to hide but which is the Nazi equivalent of Jack the Ripper?

There isn’t really a star in Night of the Generals, even though the film has a pretty starry cast, with the film’s focus shifting at different points. Omar Sharif is Grau who provides the thrust of the story, but other than a disinterest in the Hitler assassination attempt, a liking for French wine and a dogged determination to see a job done, we don’t really find out anything about him. In the role of Kahlenberg, Donald Pleasence brings some humour to the film but again we don’t really find out what makes him tick.

The two most fully developed characters are General Tanz and Corporal Hartmann. Peter O’Toole gives a faultless performance as Tanz. Tyrannical, eccentric and filled with self loathing, the General is a psychopath with control of a large army, surely a metaphor for Hitler. O’Toole’s blue eyes have never been so cold and filled with madness as they are here. If Tanz represents the insanity of war than Hartmann is the antithesis, a decorated hero who seeks to avoid combat for the sanest of reasons – he doesn’t want to die. Tom Courtenay is the yin to O’Toole’s yang; a decent guy caught up in a conflict he can’t escape, a lover (of General von Seidlitz-Gabler’s daughter) not a fighter. He’s forced into being Tanz’s tour guide around Paris by General Kahlenberg, an order that leads ultimately to the films satisfying conclusion.

The Night of the Generals is very much an actor’s film, bar one scene of the destruction of Warsaw by Tanz there isn’t much action. It relies on the performances to carry it and director Anatole Litvak gets the best out of his big name cast, Sharif covers the lack of character depth with star power and O’Toole gives us a truly memorable madman, only Christopher Plummer as Field Marshal Rommel disappoints, but with little for him to work with it’s hard to fault the actor.

The film works as both war movie and murder mystery and is well worth a look if you’re a fan of either genre and it’s a must see for O’Toole fans.

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