Monday, September 13, 2010

Quickies: THE NIGHT OF THE GENERALS (1967)

From what I saw in Anatole Litvak's film version, Hans Hellmut Kirst's Edgar-winning wartime mystery has material for a good or possibly great film in it. The detective is a German army officer (Omar Sharif) investigating the murder in Warsaw of a Polish prostitute who happened to be a Gestapo informant. The most witnesses can tell him is that a man fleeing the scene had a red stripe on his pants, a feature exclusive to a general's uniform. Three generals in town lack alibis for the night in question. They are played by Charles Gray, Peter O'Toole and Donald Pleasance. All three are plausible, O'Toole being possibly least so because to this point audiences had seen him mostly in heroic roles. Sharif's investigation is aborted when he's kicked upstairs, with a promotion to Colonel, and reassigned to Paris. When all three generals turn up in Paris in July 1944 Sharif revives his inquiry, which is complicated (as was his original investigation, in all likelihood) by the fact that at least one of the generals is a conspirator in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

So far, so interesting. I was intrigued by the potential for Sharif's character to miss the forest for the trees, obsessing over a petty murder while the fate of his country and the world may be decided under his nose. The story doesn't quite play out this way in the Litvak film, in which Sharif seems well aware of the conspiracy but, as a character meant to be sympathetic, he practically condones it. It might have complicated the moral dilemmas of the story were the murdering general also one of the anti-Hitler conspirators, but I presume that Kirst himself decided against that in the novel. From him, I also presume, comes the movie's deadening emphasis on the social life of the aristocratic officers and a subplot concerning a young officer (Tom Courtenay) who falls in love with the daughter of one of the generals, becomes a flunky for another, and ends up framed for a fresh murder in Paris. I don't know whether to blame Kirst, Litvak, or the screenwriters for the two-year gap in the story that rather undercuts our sense of Sharif's obsession with solving the crime. But I think I can blame Litvak for sucker-punching us several reels in with the revelation that what we're watching are flashbacks based on interviews taken twenty years later by an Interpol investigator (Philippe Noiret) with his own tie to the story. He knocks us for a loop again at a point when we presume the film is over, when the flash-forward interviews are finally explained as an investigation of a present-day murder that means that the movie has another half-hour to go. The Interpol man goes through the motions of interviewing the generals, all of whom (including the July 20 conspirator!) survived the war, when by this point the audience knows perfectly well who the murderer was and is. This present-day mystery should have been established as the framing device immediately; instead, it just appears tacked on and makes the whole story look sloppy.

Litvak does direct some handsome and huge scenes, particularly the destruction of a resistance neighborhood by tank fire and flamethrowers actually filmed in Warsaw -- maybe the Commies found it a convenient way to get some necessary demolition done. Omar Sharif is at the peak of his trans-ethnic chameleonic versatility, his performance as a Nazi officer undercut only by the director surrounding him with Brits. The three generals all acquit themselves well, however, with O'Toole the standout in a long sequence as a fearsomely repressed man forced to find some way to enjoy himself away from war. There's a lot of good stuff in this film, but it ends up looking as if the novel Night of the Generals got into a bad accident and wasn't quite put back together correctly. I can't say it was a good film if I wanted a remake as soon as it was over, but if I want a remake at all, without having read the novel, there was at least potential in the Litvak version that may seem more fully realized to other viewers. Maybe I should recommend the book instead, but I'd have to find a copy and read it first.

1 comment:

Brent said...

I read the book abouy 20 years ago and didin't reliase it had actually been made into a film. Can't remember too much about the book so can't really say if it was worth reading or not. But your review was useful, and hopefully one Day I'll be able to see this film. I'm a film lover and am constantly surprised by what is out there in the world of film. There are titles on your blog I've never heard of and I see hundreds of films a year!