Sam Spiegel was one of the most revered and accomplished producers in Hollywood history. His achievements included such classics as "On the Waterfront", "The African Queen", "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and "Lawrence of Arabia". His body of work, though not nearly as extensive as that of some other producers, was notable in the sense that Spiegel thought big and shot for the moon when it came to bringing to the screen stories that spoke to the human condition. Following the triumphant release of "Lawrence" in 1962, Spiegel did not make another film for four years. When he did, the movie - "The Chase"- turned out to be a star-packed drama that won over neither critics or audiences. Spiegel had a more ambitious idea for his next production, a screen adaptation of the best-selling WWII thriller "The Night of the Generals" by Hans Helmut Kirst. Spiegel had the inspired idea of reuniting his "Lawrence of Arabia" co-stars Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif. They were reluctant to take on the project, but they certainly owed him. Both were virtual unknowns until Spiegel gave them the roles that made them international stars. Spiegel also added to the mix an impressive cast of esteemed British actors ranging from veterans such as Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray to up-and-coming young actors Tom Courtenay and Joanna Pettet. He chose Anatole Litvak to direct. Litvak had been making films for decades and had a few notable hits such as "Sorry, Wrong Number", "Anastasia" and "The Snake Pit". Spiegel being Spiegel ensured that the production benefited from a large budget and an appropriate running time (148 minutes) that would allow the story to unfold in a measured process.
"The Night of the Generals" is certainly a unique spin on WWII films. There are no battles or major action sequences, save for a harrowing sequence in which the German army systematically destroys part of the Warsaw Ghetto. Instead, it's very much a character study populated by characters who are, indeed, very interesting. The film opens with a tense sequence set in occupied Warsaw. The superintendent of an over-crowded apartment building accidentally overhears the brutal murder of a local prostitute in a room upstairs. From a hiding place he witnesses the killer walk past him. He does not see the man's face but recognizes his uniform: he is a general in the German army. The man keeps this information to himself on the logical assumption that divulging it might mean his death sentence. However, under questioning from the army investigator, Major Grau (Omar Sharif), he tells the shocking details of what he witnessed. From this moment, Grau becomes obsessed with finding the killer. Grau may be a German officer, but he is a pure cynic when it comes to the Nazi cause and the brutal methods being employed to win the war. He can't control the larger picture of how the war is being waged but he can control what is in his jurisdiction: bringing to justice the man who committed this one especially savage murder. Grau soon centers on three suspects. The first is General von Seiditz-Gabler (Charles Gray, channeling his future Blofeld), an effete, well-connected opportunist who is in a loveless marriage to his dominating wife Eleanore (Coral Browne). Then there is General Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasence), a man of slight build and low-key personality who has some eccentric personal habits that may include murder. Last, and most intriguing, is General Tanz (Peter O'Toole), a much-loathed and much-feared darling of Hitler's inner circle whose ruthless methods with dealing with civilian populations disgust his colleagues. Tanz has been sent to control or obliterate the Warsaw Ghetto.
The screenplay (which includes contributions by an uncredited Gore Vidal) is a bit disjointed and cuts back and forth to the present day in which we see a French police inspector, Morand (Phillippe Noiret), investigating the case twenty years later as he tries to tie together Grau's findings with dramatic developments that occurred during his handling of the case. Morand also appears in the war era sequences, having befriended Grau, who does not seem at all disturbed when he learns that Morand is actually a key figure in the French Resistance. Grau becomes particularly intrigued by General Ganz. He is an elitist snob who is devoid of any humor or compassion. A workaholic with seemingly no human weaknesses, Tanz is ostensibly under the command of his superior officer, Gabler, but it becomes clear that his political connections make him the top general in Warsaw. Major Grau interviews all three suspects and finds that any of them could be the murderer. When he becomes too intrusive, he is conveniently promoted and transferred to Paris, presumably to shut down his investigation. However, as the fortunes of war decline for the Third Reich, the top brass is eventually moved to Paris and Grau resumes his investigation when he discovers that prostitutes are being brutally murdered there as well. There is a parallel story that accompanies that of the murder investigation. It centers on Corporal Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a young soldier who has been reluctantly acclaimed to be a national hero. It seems he was the last surviving member of his unit after a bloody battle. The brass used him as a propaganda tool, bestowing medals on him for heroic actions. In fact, he is a self-proclaimed coward whose only goal is to stay alive through the war. Hartmann confesses this to his superior, General Kahlenberg, who is amused by his honesty. He assigns him to be General Tanz's personal valet and orders him to show Tanz the history and sights of Paris. Neither he nor Tanz wants to partake in the venture, but Gabler orders Tanz to take a few days vacation, largely because he despises the man's presence. The scenes in which Hartmann tries to appease the mercurial Tanz without making any missteps are fraught with tension and suspense. Tanz is a fascinating character, presumably devoid of the vices most men have. However, in the course of their time together, Hartmann realizes that Tanz is somewhat of a fraud. He surreptitiously drinks to excess and changes into civilian clothes in order to meet with prostitutes in seedy bars. Although Tanz chews out Hartmann for every minor infraction, he seems to come to respect the younger man's professionalism. This sets in motion another complex plot development that also involves Hartmann's secret romance with General Gabler's free-spirited daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet).
Just trying to summarize the various plot strands of "The Night of the Generals" in this space is fairly exhausting. Oh, did I mention that another subplot involves Field Marshal Rommel (a cameo by Christopher Plummer) and the July, 1944 plot on the part of rebellious German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler? Nevertheless, although the various story lines become quite complex, they are all tied together eventually in clever and compelling ways. The film is part "Whodunnit", part political statement and part war movie. The movie moves back to the present for its intense conclusion as Inspector Morand is finally able to solve the crime and attempt to bring the culprit to justice. When the killer is revealed it's about as shocking of a development as the revelation that the butler did it in one of those old British film noir mysteries. Still, director Litvak (who shares the producer credit with Sam Spiegel because he owned the screen rights to the novel) keeps the action flowing briskly running time and elicits outstanding performances from his cast. O'Toole, who would later capitalize on playing larger-than-life characters, was at this point in his career still very immersed in portraying introspective, quiet men. He is quite mesmerizing as General Tanz and quite terrifying as well. Sharif is, at least on the surface, badly cast. I'm not aware of any Egyptians who became prominent German officers. Sharif has the map of the Middle East on his face and lingering remnants of his native accent. It's to his credit that he overcomes these obstacles and gives a very fine performance as the charismatic investigator who doggedly pursues his suspects with Javert-like conviction. All of the other performances are equally outstanding, with Courtenay especially impressive- and one has to wonder why the very talented Joanna Pettet never became a bigger star. The international flavor of the cast gives the film a Tower of Babel-like effect. Some of the actors attempt to affect a quasi-German accent while others speak with British accents, and then we have the French and Poland-based sequences with even more diversity of languages. Still, if you could accept Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood speaking "German" in their native tongues in "Where Eagles Dare", you won't find this aspect of "The Night of the Generals" to be particularly distracting. I should also mention the impressive contributions of composer Maurice Jarre, cinematographer Henri Decae and main titles designer Robert Brownjohn (remember when films even had opening titles?) In summary, the film-which not successful with critics or the public- is a thoroughly intriguing experience and affords us the joy of watching some of the best actors of the period sharing the screen.
"The Night of the Generals" has been released as a limited edition (3,000 units) Blu-ray from Twilight Time. The transfer is gorgeous, giving full impact to the impressive cinematography and lush production design. There is also an isolated score track, the original trailer and an informative booklet by film historian Julie Kirgo, who examines Sam Spiegel's attempts to rebuild his career in subsequent years only to find that he was out of place in the new Hollywood.