Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Living In the Past

On today's docket, a couple old films.

First, one of my favorite old films, Anatole Litvak's 1967 thriller The Night of the Generals.

The story involves three Nazi generals, one of whom is involved in the serial murder of prostitutes. The generals, Kahlenberg (Donald Pleasance), von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray) and Tanz (Peter O'Toole) are all suspected, and all three are unaccounted for at the times of the murders and each is concealing something. The tumultuous events of WWII serve as an improbable backdrop, less for the crimes themselves--what could be less shocking than murder in wartime?--but for the dogged investigation into the murders undertaken by the zealous fellow Nazi Colonel Grau (Omar Sharif), who insists that justice means nothing if members of a class can exempt themselves from its mandates.

In itself it's a fascinating setup, but it's made most compelling by the central performances. While there is some late '60s period filmmaking cheese at the perimeter, the central figures are quite magnetic, particularly Omar Sharif as the good-natured but almost manically-focused Grau. Even as he is taunted--and frankly warned--about his obsession over such peripheral matters while Germany is struggling for its existence, he will not, cannot, be sidetracked. "Above all, Major Grau, not too much zeal," he is warned by a colleague when Grau insists on confronting the three men (who have systematically refused to see him) at a cocktail party. "I have a zealous nature, sir; I can't help it," he says congenially.

The other standout performance--the real star of the show--is Peter O'Toole as the magnificently pathological General Tanz. As the quintessential Nazi, "the pet of Hitler," as he is called, Tanz is dogmatic and brutal, and manically rigid. Or just a plain maniac. He is obsessed with cleanliness and comically devoid of social graces, such that one waits mid-cringe for the next little blowup that follows inevitably in his wake. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Tanz has the power to indulge all but the most savage whims with impunity--and, with a little care, those as well.

(As an aside, I vaguely remember seeing the film 30 years ago, and I daresay it was seeing a bald Donald Pleasance in huge Birth Control Glasses that grabbed something deep in my brain stem and gave it a good shake: I identified with this look on some unutterable level--and indeed I still do. Apart from slightly toned down glasses--a recent development--I adopted the look almost immediately and have found my stylistic home ever since. Pity I couldn't find a better role model than a wacky Nazi general, though I daresay Kahlenberg is the sanest of the group here. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.)

Mixed up in the story is the historical plot to kill Hitler in his bunker and sidestep his hand-picked successor in favor of a saner government, a situation covered recently in Bryan Singer's 2008 film Valkyrie. But those events play at the edge of The Night of the Generals, and that eccentricity is kind of the film's point: even as high Nazi officials are trying to murder Hitler, a dogged investigator continues to probe the murder of a couple prostitutes. I saw it on some TV rerun in my early days of college, and I looked for the film in VHS and DVD catalogs for years to no avail. I was thrilled to find it recently available on iTunes. It's not a film that deserves the very highest grade, but it's a worthy effort and an excellent entertainment (if this is your thing). For brilliant performances and a wonderful period feel I would give it a solid B+.

The other film is new to me, Edward Dmytryk's 1947 film noir Crossfire.

The film stars three Roberts: Young, Mitchum and Ryan. Mitchum and Ryan are servicemen back from the battlefields of WWII who, with a collection of soldier friends, find themselves mixed up in the murder of a civilian, a man scarcely known to any of them. Robert Young plays a detective who is trying to get to the bottom of the murder, trying to figure out who is responsible in a group of men who are frantically--and often unthinkingly--trying to look out for each other (as perhaps they have had to spend the last four years doing). Both Young and Mitchum play cynical men who have seen it all and are tired of life. But each is also intelligent and observant and almost impossible to catch off guard, and it is the strength of these two performances that carry the film. The supporting actors are not weak by any means, but Young and Mitchum are deeply satisfying, giving the kind of performances that make me want to watch a film in the first place.

A lot of really wonderful films came from B Movie reels, especially noir films. Noir films are known for an emphasis on style, particularly lighting, and the lower budgets often give the films a play-like quality, forcing them to concentrate the story on small sets and in verbal exchanges between people rather than in broad action or battle scenes. The deep shadows of Crossfire's opening scene sets the mood instantly, as does the cynicism and world-weariness of all the main characters--these things are very noir. I especially like the way the soldiers are portrayed here, as generally good kids who have been through hell and have come out the other side with much of their baby skin scrubbed off. It seems a very mature and measured thing in 1947 to recognize the essential goodness of a soldier's task in this war while at the same time refusing to give anyone a free pass on that account. It also seems visionary to grapple, if just a little, with what it is to return from the hell these guys lived through and try to set up a normal life in the aftermath. This last angle doesn't get much play, but at a time when I suspect jingoism was running rampant it's refreshing to see the cold water of reality splashed on things. These men's accomplishments are not diminished by acknowledging the difficulties they face after the fact.

The film ultimately grapples with racism, though in the form of the battles among white man's clans (this is still a world where dealing with prejudice against nonwhites was nowhere near on the table, even if it is exactly the same argument; that would take several more decades). But it's a plot point that's kind of sneaked in through the side door and apart from one of Young's speeches it's not too fervently handled (idealism of any kind is really at odds with noir sensibilities). The rest is just a good old fashioned detective story, a whodunit with great characterizations, high-contrast lighting and lots and lots of smoking. What's not to like in that?

Grade: B

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