The Face Among the Generals
Peter O’Toole (1932-2013), born 84 years ago today, easily deserved an Academy Award® for each of the eight times he was nominated as Best Actor but since he brought a glimmer of star quality, a dash of mystery and a pinch of eccentricity to almost all his screen roles across his 50-year movie career, many a movie was elevated by his very presence, even one as colorfully cast and determinedly bizarre as The Night of the Generals (1967). Film historian Roderick Heath, partnered with Marilyn Ferdinand in the noteworthy movie blog Ferdy on Film, offers this assessment: “O’Toole is ferocious in The Night of the Generals, a fascinating and very neglected film, one of the most singular by-products of the era’s tumultuous screen culture. Produced on a lavish scale by Sam Spiegel, who had fostered O’Toole’s stardom in producing Lawrence of Arabia, it’s a big-budget war movie with scarcely any combat. Rather, it’s essentially military noir, combining an early variation on the serial killer hunt motif with a typically ’60s fascination for antiheroic, antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about World War II from the German side, standing up with a relative handful of such works like Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (1977) and Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie (2008).” It’s also a film that in its sometimes cumbersome density and fetishistic perversity – with some historical incidents like Operation Valkyrie, the attempted 1944 assassination of Adolf Hitler by high-ranking military officers, thrown in – has acquired a sizable following over the past 49 years, O’Toole’s uncharacteristic tightrope-walking act as a power-consumed, basket-case neurotic German general being one of its major draws. He is one of three generals – the other two are played by Donald Pleasence and Charles Gray – suspected by an investigating colonel (Lawrence of Arabia co-star Omar Sharif) of the brutal mutilation murders of prostitutes, and the counterpoint of human atrocities on a genocidal mass scale and an individual level gives it a hypnotic vibe that director Anatole Litvak (also behind the elaborate romantic and sociopolitical maneuverings of the 1956 Anastasia, available on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray) and scenarists Paul Dehn (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Murder on the Orient Express) and Joseph Kessel (the source novels for Belle de Jeur and The Army of Shadows) work hard to maintain. In one particular scene set in Nazi-occupied Paris, O’Toole’s General Tanz is escorted by an aide (Tom Courtenay) to a museum where, in a restricted gallery full of so-called “decadent art” sequestered only for the eyes of high-ranking German officials in Joseph Goebbles’ orbit, he becomes unhinged. Heath observes: “Tanz, intrigued by the gallery’s ‘decadent’ modernist works, finds himself stricken with horrified self-recognition as he stares at Van Gogh’s Vincent in Flames self-portrait. Matching zooms and cuts between O’Toole’s sweat-swathed face and the portrait’s infernal flames and blue eyes with Maurice Jarre’s nerve-jangling score render an impression of the soldier’s wits turning inside out, in a superlative conflation of cinematic devices. The film alsonotes with malign humor the nature of the Nazi antipathy to ‘decadent’ art, for its stylized, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath.” That face, burnished in our minds as T.E. Lawrence, King Henry II, Mr. Chips, the demented Earl of Gurney, rogue moviemaker Eli Cross and flamboyant souse Alan Swann, to name just a precious few of many gems, takes on an unimaginable horror that only an actor of virtuosity and daring can bring off. See how Peter O’Toole does it by watching The Night of the Generals on glistening TT hi-def Blu-ray. There will be more of the O'Toole face in the Twilight Time future as well.