“The Night of the Generals” is the rare mystery set in war. It was a Franco-British production helmed by Sam Spiegel who was attempting to replicate the success of his “Lawrence of Arabia”. To maximize his chances, he reunited Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif for the first time since that epic five years earlier. This might have worked except for the fact that neither star was happy to be involved in the movie. The two actors were forced to make the movie for laughably low salaries for new mega-stars because they were still under an earlier contract. In fact, Donald Pleasance was paid a lot more than the other two. Sharif was uncomfortable with playing a Nazi and had a very awkward moment in a Warsaw café when he forgot he was in uniform. Spiegel hired Anatole Litvak as director instead of a new up and coming director. He then proceeded to micro-manage and undercut Litvak throughout the shoot. It took four screenwriters to put together the script. In spite of all this dysfunctionality the movie was a big hit – not!
The movie opens with the murder of a prostitute in Warsaw in 1942. A Major Grau (Sharif) from the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence) is brought in because the girl was a German agent. The three suspects are three German generals. It is no spoiler to admit that it is obvious from his first appearance that Gen. Tanz (O’Toole) is the murderer. End of mystery, but unfortunately not end of movie. Stick around for a truly bizarre performance by O’Toole. He plays Tanz as a looney and a sadist. He is insane and evil even for a Nazi. He has a soft spot for kids while he is wiping out their neighborhood with tanks and flamethrowers. Grau is snooping around when he gets transferred to Paris. Guess what three suspects end up in Paris two years later at the time of a similar prostitute murder? It’s a small war after all. The film throws in a subplot about the conspiracy to kill Hitler and does a satisfactory job reenacting the assassination attempt. Tanz kills another prostitute and frames his driver, but then lets him flee so he can later implicate him when we flash forward to Hamburg in 1965.
This movie is a misfire of epic proportions. Nothing works. It is a mess. It has no flow, partly due to the nonlinear structure. It drags along like a crippled otter. There is a romance involving Tanz’s driver that is lame and has no logical reason for being in the movie. Except to give the great Tom Courtney something to do to please his multitude of fans. The weaving of the mystery with the assassination conspiracy does not work. More importantly, the mystery is undermined by O’Toole’s truly weird performance. It is painfully clear that he sabotaged the movie out of spite for his paltry salary. At one point he makes a trip to a museum and freaks out over a self-portrait of Van Gogh. The next day he returns to the museum and stares at the painting and then leaves. WTF? Of course, you have to put some of the blame for that on the four screenwriters, but he did not have to play Tanz as the Hitler Youth voted Most Likely to Kill Prostitutes. He also does not bother to even attempt a German accent. Then again, neither does any other member of the cast.
GRADE = D