This movie mixes several points together. They are not exactly seamlessly joined, true, but each is followable and interesting in its own right. In no particular order, we have the irony of ex-Wehrmacht officers and men doing quite all right in the 1960s Wirtschaftswelle of Germany. One of the characters we've been following remarks that these damned Spaniards and Italians he now has working for him in his factory don't know how to make Volkswagons. Back to the occupation of Europe, there is the overall context in which the Germans are losing the war, but nothing much is made of this except to the extent that it generates a movement among (some of) the officers to eliminate Hitler, a movement about which Major Grau (Omar Sharif), investigating the slaughter of a prostitute, observes cynically that it took quite a while for the movement to develop since the army seemed satisfied enough as long as they were winning.
The French police officer who is helping him (the ever-sympatico Philippe Noiret) asks Major Grau why he is obsessed with tracking down the murderer of a whore in the midst of mass demise, and Grau says he resents the murderer's thinking he can play God. Noiret asks, "And you can?" Grau replies neatly, "My blasphemy is on a smaller, more secular scale." (Some of the dialog is pretty nifty.) Omar Sheriff gives what may be his finest performance on film. He may have been all masculine in "Lawrence of Arabia" but here he is effete, suggestive in the most delicate way of homosexuality. It's in the way he holds a cigarette, the way he dances up a flight of stairs.
The search for the murderer, whose identity is stupefyingly obvious shortly into the picture, provides a police procedural that forms the movie's spine or at any rate its notochord. There is even a romance that is not simply thrown in but is fairly well integrated into the plot and important to the outcome. The cast is good -- and what a caste! Peter O'Toole has been criticized for repeating his neurotic tricks from Lawrence of Arabia, but I didn't find it derivative at all. Lawrence was subtly mad. General Tanz is completely, screamingly, eye-twitchingly, dripping with sweatly, NUTS. There are two scenes in which Tanz enters a locked room to view "decadent art." One of them is a self portrait of Van Gogh. In each scene Tanz and Vincent stare back at one another, two psychotics, and "I know exactly who you are" seems to be written all over Van Gogh's scowling face. Both times Tanz is overcome and seems to dissolve into a myoclonic fit.
The novel by Hans Helmutt Kirst was a lot funnier than the movie, taking advantage of every opportunity to poke fun at German military precision. But there are still amusing incidents left in the film. When Grau meets Tanz at a fancy reception and begins to query him, Tanz leans forward with an expression of distaste and asks, "Are you wearing PERFUME?" Grau, never flappable, replies, "I use a rather strong cologne." I don't understand, though, why Tanz wears the uniform of a Wermacht general through most of the film, then shows up at his last confrontation with Grau dressed as an SS officer.
Maurice Jarre was writing effective scores in the late 60s. His "crazy music" sounds like an accompaniment to a marionette show that, when one thinks about it, isn't entirely inappropriate. The murderer meets his just end (while sensibly drunk as a skunk in the novel) but the story is fundamentally a tragic one. Too many deaths of good people. Too many lives ruined for nothing. What a shame the Hitler plot didn't work. It should ideally have been mounted back in 1938.
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