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    The Fog of War and Filmmaking

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    When the Academy Award®-winning producer and Oscar®-nominated stars of Lawrence of Arabia (1962) were reunited four years later for another big-budget period epic, cinematic lightning did not strike twice. The Night of the Generals (1967), which began its national theatrical release 50 years ago today, is a tantalizing murder mystery set inside the German military elite during the World War II occupations of Warsaw and Paris, and which would be resolved 20 years later in Munich; each of the these cities served as filming locations. The brutal murder in Warsaw of a prostitute, who was also a German agent, becomes the focus of military intelligence officer Omar Sharif, and despite bureaucratic setbacks to his investigation, still pursues the hunt for the killer when he is reassigned to Paris, where a similar murder occurs and coincides with the his billeting of three prime suspects – generals played by Peter O’Toole, Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray – all in Warsaw then, and all in the City of Light now. The lurid details unfold against a background of true events (including the 1942 destruction of Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto and the 1944 Operation Valkyrie attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler) and scintillating fiction that provides voyeuristic titillation and narrative jolts (for a crime thriller equivalent, think of the 20-years later L.A. Confidential). But audiences and critics a half-century ago didn’t sign on and the picture’s hybrid mix of war movie, crime thriller and inquiry into sexual deviation and psychopathic behavior didn’t gel effectively. Having suffered a similar rejection of his previous year’s all-star production of The Chase (1966, a Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray rediscovery), producer Sam Spiegel also exercised to a fault the same compulsive tendency for artistic control on The Night of the Generals as he did on The Chase. Robert Sellers writes in his 2016 Peter O’Toole: The Definitive Biography: “It go so bad that Spiegel was even telling his director Anatole Litvak where to place the camera. According to O’Toole, the script [credited to Joseph Kessel and Paul Dehn] was rewritten and changed on an almost daily basis and he later laid the blame for the inadequacies of the finished film solely at Spiegel’s door, believing that had the original material been left untouched the picture would have been far superior.” In his autobiography The Eternal Male, co-star Sharif also found the experience unnerving, with dark deeds still on the minds of the local citizenry surrounding the production, recounting: “We were shooting in the streets of Warsaw. It was bitter cold. Between shots I walked into a little cafe, wearing my costume. I'd just wanted a cup of coffee and hadn't even thought about the uniform. I looked around and what did I see? Panic-stricken faces, people with tears welling up in their eyes. ‘I’m no German!’ I yelled quickly. ‘I’m making an American movie. I'm an American.’ I even usurped a nationality to help reassure them. Nobody said a word. The barman refused to serve me. I suddenly understood the incongruity of that German uniform in a peaceful neighborhood cafe. I sensed the sadness that it inspired. I went out in dismay....Twenty-two years had elapsed without mitigating the pain and horror. On that day I learned that time can't make people forget.” But the passage of time and subsequent television exposure have led to reappraisal of the film, which has built up a notable following for its meticulous period recreations and the bizarre vibe it generates for viewers who get a kick having their genres mashed. Among the admirers are Ferdy on Films bloggers Marilyn Ferdinand and Roderick Heath, whose thorough and evocative essay can be found here: http://www.ferdyonfilms.com/2014/the-night-of-the-generals-1967/21132/. Among the regretters, there can also be sympathy mixed in with the resentment. Sellers recapped: “There was a twinge of sadness, however, when O’Toole heard of his [Spiegel’s] death in 1985, especially upon learning of the circumstances. On the set of Lawrence, Robert Bolt had asked how he thought Spiegel would meet his end. Almost without pause O’Toole answered, ‘Spiegel will die in two inches of bath water.’ And such was the case, on New Year’s Eve, Spiegel died from a sudden heart attack, alone in his hotel suite, falling into his bath.” The many moods and chills of The Night of the Generals, with an eerily hypnotic Isolated Track of the unnerving score by Maurice Jarre, are available to explore on TT’s splendid hi-def Blu-ray.

    Musically Succeeding

    In the movie musical landscape of 1967, the most visible examples, some more successful than others, proved to be Thoroughly Modern Millie, Camelot and three for the family trade, Doctor Dolittle and Disney’s disparate duo of the animated The Jungle Book and the live-action The Happiest Millionaire. Elvis Presley fans got a threesome consisting of Easy Come, Easy Go, Double [...]

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    Cutter Paul and Fogey John

    Here’s to the befuddled average guys who cope with life’s tough breaks when the awkward events swirling around them invade their comfort zones and upend their core beliefs. Two class actors who memorably embodied such characters share today as a birthday. American treasure Paul Dooley, turning 89, is already in the driver’s seat voicing his recurring part of the [...]

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    Peckinpah in Montage

    Today would have marked the 92nd birthday of the great Sam Peckinpah (1925-1984) and 20 years ago at this time, in an occurrence that would prove not only rare but indeed singular, a short film created from new footage, home movies, interviews and reminiscences covering the production of his best-regarded movie became a newly-minted Academy Award® nominee for Best Documentary [...]

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    Temperature Rising: May-June Lineup

    The 11 films (on 10 discs) kicking off Summer 2017 on the Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray label crank up the action heat with hard-hitting criminal conspiracies (two involving TT favorite Charles Bronson) and expertly told war sagas. Yet there’s also room for quieter, lesser-known personal stories from veteran directors as well, along with another splendid 3D title that [...]

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    Lou at 55 Meets La Bamba at 30

    “Lightning in a bottle” and “my Cinderella story” are the two characterizations Lou Diamond Phillips, the prolific actor-director turning 55 today, applies to his big-screen breakout role as singer/songwriter/guitarist Ritchie Valens in writer/director Luis Valdez’s fondly remembered musical biopic La Bamba (1987). Although on the film shoot the non-Latino Phillips was himself already seven years older than the 17-year-old Valens was [...]

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    François’ Femmes Fatales

    Isabelle Huppert’s fearless and enigmatic performance in director Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Elle, already the winner of the 2016 Best Actress Golden Globe and prizes from the Los Angeles, New York and National Society of Film Critics and up for similar honors at the upcoming César Awards on the 24th and Hollywood’s Academy Awards on the 26th, stands boldly in the [...]

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    Third Man Duo's Third Time Out

    The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949), two collaborations of author Graham Greene and director Carol Reed, were considered excellent in their day and masterworks today. A similar reception did not result in their 10-years-later reunion on Our Man in Havana (1959), but nonetheless there’s a sufficient amount of espionage spoofery, droll performances, worldly commentary on bureaucratic gamesmanship [...]

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    Valentine to Thelma

    In addition to significant others, another worthy subset of Valentine’s Day honorees getting the hearts/flowers/hugs treatment are that of moms or mother figures. How appropriate too that February 14 is the birthday of character actress supreme Thelma Ritter (1902-1969), who played many witty and salty maternal roles on screen to a Brooklyn-accented fare-thee-well. Nominated six times for the Best Supporting Actress [...]

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    War Dogs X 2

    American moviegoers experiencing the fierce and intelligent screen adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s 1974 novel The Dogs of War (1980) when it opened stateside 36 years ago today saw a version of the film 15 minutes shorter than the one British cinemagoers saw two months prior. That wasn’t an impediment for admirers like The New York Times’ Vincent Canby, who pronounced it [...]

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