An all-star production of the over-produced, over-publicized, over-long archetypally ’60s variety, ‘The Night of the Generals’ blends murder mystery, conspiracy thriller and war movie tropes into a heady cocktail of WTF. We’re talking two and a half hours of hopelessly confused narrative digressions and howlingly incongruous scenes.
Occupied Poland, 1942: Major Grau (Omar Sharif) attends the scene after a prostitute is murdered in a dingy tenement building. Dressed in an ankle length greatcoat and black boots, he questions a witness who is hesitant about co-operating. And with good reason. “He was an officer,” the witness mumbles fearfully. Grau asks how he knows. “He was wearing trousers like yours.” Trousers, that is with a red stripe. The kind of natty apparel you don’t get to strut around in till they make you a general.
Like me reiterate at this point that Grau is dressed throughout this scene in a long greatcoat and high boots. His trousers are obscured. The man could be wearing a freakin’ kilt! Also, he’s played by Omar Sharif, whose swarthy Egyptian looks, while toned down with a dusting of white powder, remain more swarthy and ethnic than you’d credit anyone with in a military hierarchy based on Aryan purity.
The incongruities continue. The Polish hooker is revealed as a German agent, only for this tantalising subplot to disappear. A Corporal who’s a talented pianist complains at having to play Chopin when Wagner is his composer of choice. (Aside from the orchestral piece ‘Siegfried-Idyll’, Wagner’s entire output was opera or lieder; he wrote no piano music.)
Then there’s the lurching flash forwards to the mid-Sixties as Interpol agent Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret) – a man whose connection to the events of the war isn’t established until halfway through the film – plods around tracking down the surviving protagonists and asking them blandly procedural questions in a manner that makes ‘Midsomer Murders’ look like James Ellroy on crack.
Oh yeah, and no sooner has the mise-en-scene returned the audience to Poland in 1942 than it’s suddenly Paris in 1944 and everyone’s been transferred and have co-incidentally met up again. Or maybe it’s not such a co-incidence, since ‘The Night of the Generals’ takes another lurch at this point and the 20th July plot (you know, the old bomb-in-a-briefcase under the table, let’s kill der Führer routine) is in full swing and all but one of the potential murderers are involved in the conspiracy.
But wait, you protest. The 20th July plot took place back in Germany. What’s all this malarkey about the conspirators being in Paris? Well, they’re waiting for word that the craply-moustachioed one is toast, whereupon they can establish a new government and curtail the war and … oh, what the hell? The point is, the conspirators have to keep the non-conspirator out of the way for a couple of days, and some fucking genius involved in the production of this Euro-pudding decided that huge amounts of tension and suspense could be wrung from one of the major characters being driven around Paris interminably and having a Stendhal Syndrome kind of turn when he goes to view some allegedly decadent art (you know, the kind that features naked women). This character being a hardcore Hitlerite and having a tendency to viciousness, could he be the murderer?
There is absolutely no mystery to ‘The Night of the Generals’. No suspense. It is by turns ludicrous, clichéd, overacted and pedestrian in its direction. It boasts a powerhouse cast – Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Donald Pleasance, Charles Gray (two Blofelds in the same movie! playing Nazis!), Christopher Plummer, Coral Browne, Philippe Noiret, John Gregson and Nigel Stock – all of whom are miscast, underused or saddled with appalling dialogue: Noiret’s is exposition-heavy and, although at ease in English-language productions elsewhere in his filmography, he seems distinctly unconfident here; and pity Pleasance, desperately trying to breathe life into a clunker of a line like “am I to assume that if Stage 1 meets with resistance we will go to Stage 2 and possibly Stage 3” (I can only quote Paula’s monumentally derisive comment: “Wow, so there isn’t a Stage 1a, 1b or 1z, then?”)
All, I should say, except Peter O’Toole. He takes hygiene-obsessed General Tanz (ostensibly the most one-note character in the whole piece) and imbues him with the insouciance of T.E. Lawrence (or at least the version of Lawrence essayed by O’Toole in David Lean’s epic), the provocative and oddly threatening dandyism of Dirk Bogarde in ‘The Singer Not the Song’, and an icily ironic remove that pre-supposes Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.
Armed with cap, boots, swagger stick, leather gloves and a piercing thousand-yard stare, O’Toole stalks through the film, disdaining Anatole Litvak’s somnolent direction, rolling the deficiencies of the script around in his mouth before spitting them out, and making mediocre material memorable simply by treating it, imperiously, with the contempt it deserves.