Sunday, July 29, 2018

For those who like their Nazis to have impeccable British accents

Another movie I recently watched off my DVR that's available on DVD is The Night of the Generals.

After some very brief exposition, we get sent to the real action of the movie, in Warsaw in December 1942. A man gets back to his apartment building, and as he's walking up the stairs he hears a blood-curdling scream coming from a top-floor apartment. He can hear the steps of a presumptive murderer coming down the stairs, and not wanting to have to face the murderer, he ducks into the lavatory. He looks out a small hole in the door, and sees only the murderer's pants, which are unmistakeably the color and fabric of a Nazi uniform, this being 1942 when the Nazis were busy occupying the country. Even more alarming, there's a red stripe running down the side of the pants, which means that it's the uniform of a Nazi general.

The murder victim was an agent for the Nazis, and was rather brutally hacked to pieces. So German intelligence is called in to investigate, in the form of Major Grau (Omar Sharif). Grau is that rarest of birds, a man who cares about the pursuit of the truth, and doesn't seem to care that if the murderer is a general then there are all sorts of political landmines in investigating the murder. Anyhow, the first thing to do is discreetly investigate the whereabouts of every Nazi general in Warsaw that night. There are three who don't have ironclad alibis: Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance); Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), who is usually referred to as just Gabler; and neat-freak Tanz (Peter O'Toole). Apparently the political muckety-mucks in Berlin don't want to deal with the fallout of having one of their generals being a murderer, so somebody kicks Grau upstairs, giving him a promotion and a transfer to Paris.

Fast forward to mid-July, 1944, in Paris. History buffs will know from the dates given that this is a few days before the failed assassination attempt on Hitler's life that resulted in Rommel's (Christopher Plummer in a needless cameo) suicide. Kahlenberge and Gabler are sympathetic to those generals who want to kill Hitler and negotiate an immediate surrender. Tanz gets transferred to Paris, much to the alarm of the other generals, since his presence is liable to scupper the assassination plot. For Grau, however, he's happy to have a chance to renew the investiation into that murder in Warsaw, which he does with the help of French police inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret). And then there's another murder, in the same exact fashion as the one in Warsaw....

The Night of the Generals is one of those movies that has an interesting idea, but one that the moviemakers decided to do too much with, with the result that it's too long, ponderous, and filled with plot twists that seem unnecessary. I haven't mentioned Tom Courtenay yet; he plays Gabler's adjutant who gets assigned to Tanz in Paris, and who is in love with Gabler's daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet). His presence in the first two-thirds of the movie comes together in a coda, but for the longest time you wonder what's the point in including this romance against the backdrop of a murder mystery.

I mentioned at the start that there's a brief exposition at the beginning, and that's also part of the problem. Well, not the actual beginning; a lot of movies have a plot device of starting at some point after much of the action in the movie and then telling the story in flashback. But The Night of the Generals makes the mistake of going back to the 1960s a couple of times in the Warsaw and Paris segments. The coda is also a problem in that we learn near the end of the Paris segment who the murderer is, if you didn't already know.

The acting isn't bad, except for the fact that it's very, very British. Granted, a lot of movies make the mistake of having the actors playing Nazis do bad German accents, and not being able to keep a consistent accent throughout. The Night of the Generals goes all the way to the other end, in that the characters are never anything but obviously British. My dad walked into the room halfway through and remarked that these characters aren't German at all.

The Night of the Generals is relatively entertaining despite its numerous flaws. The TCM shop lists it on a standalone DVD, as well as part of a couple of box sets.

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