A blood curdling scream sometime after midnight awakens residents of a decrepit tenement in 1942s Warsaw, at the height of the Second World War. A tenant one floor down, opens his front door just a crack and sees a uniformed man come down, amble past his door and continue down the stairs.
Inside an apartment on a higher floor, a prostitute is dead, with multiple slashes all over her breasts and genitals. Since the girl also happened to have been a German intelligence operative, the responsibility for the homicide investigation falls upon Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) Major Grau, played with panache by Egyptian actor, Omar Sharif.
The witness confirms seeing twin red stripes running down the length of the uniform trousers of the man he saw going down the stairs, which meant that he was a member of the German General Staff. The perpetrator was obviously a German General and judging by the butchered remains of the crime of the victim, a depraved and psychotic individual too.
Serial psychopathic killers rarely stop their rampage and this one too continues his slashing as the film shifts from Warsaw to Paris in 1944 and then, in the end, to Hamburg in 1965 where he is finally apprehended at a neo-Nazi congregation. Along the way, the film weaves two pieces of history, a failed plot to kill Hitler and the suicide of Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, into the story, delivering authenticity to the plot.
In 1960s Hollywood there was only one man who could play deranged psychopaths convincingly and that was Peter O’Toole, who passed on at 81 yesterday. Peter O’Toole to me falls under the same mythical class as David Lean, Satyajit Ray, Steven Spielberg and Marlon Brando. You’d go see a movie if it had any one of them associated with it, without waiting to read the reviews.
Peter O’Toole, as the psychotic killer, General Tanz, is spine chilling. The force of his dialogue delivery, those manic blue eyes and the deep voice with just the right amount of tobacco tinged hoarseness shall remain etched in my memory. The scene at the Paris art gallery, where Tanz comes face to face with the Van Gogh self-portrait with that manic look, is memorable. Tanz sees himself in it.
By the time this movie was released in 1967, Omar Sharif too was a huge star, having already made a name for himself in two of history’s most watched films, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Zhivago. In The night of the generals, Sharif’s character is not an indoctrinated Nazi, but an upright German officer who just wants to bring a criminal to justice.
The film however appears to have a blind spot that is not very convincing. It is the part where General Tanz kills another woman whom he had earlier had his chauffeur, Lt. Hartmann (played by Tom Courtney), pick up from a bar in Paris. Just like the woman in Poland, this girl too is butchered in the most horrific manner. At this point, if I were a Nazi General, I’d simply claim that the woman was a resistance fighter who’d tried to kill me. In the chaos of war-torn France, the word of a high ranking officer of the occupation troops would be taken at face value.
Tanz however summons the chauffeur up to his room. The chauffeur gapes at the carnage, horrified. Then, instead of killing him too, the General forces him to flee, so he can claim that Hartmann was the murderer and had deserted the army and escaped after killing the woman. Serial killers rarely allow witnesses to escape.
Still, for it’s sheer tension and a chance to watch Peter O’Toole at his best, ‘The night of the generals’ is a movie you won’t easily forget. It has been a member of that exclusive club of movies that I have watched 5+ times. I think this Agatha Christie-meets-Lawrence Sanders-meets-Battle of the Bulge is holding steady at 7 times, just below ‘Sholay‘ and above ‘The Shawshank redemption’.
RIP, Peter O’Toole.