The film begins in German-occupied Warsaw in 1942. A prostitute is savagely stabbed to death and a witness spots the killer departing. He sees no face – only a uniformed trouser leg bearing the red stripe worn by German generals.
Stubborn German military investigator Major Grau (Omar Sharif) narrows the list of suspects down to General Wilhelm Tanz (a superb performance from Peter O’Toole) the ruthless leader of the notorious SS Nibelungen division; cynical General Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence) and sardonic city commander General von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray).
The investigation is shelved when Grau is conveniently transferred to Paris.
Two years later, when all three suspects are together once more in Paris, another murder comes to Grau’s attention. The victim is a young prostitute and the maniacal sex murder has the same psychopathic character as the Warsaw killing.
Grau solves the case but is killed before he can make an arrest. His investigation is resumed years later by Interpol Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), who had been a French policeman befriended by Grau during the occupation.
The core plot is also interwoven with half the German general staff being involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (which makes for a brief but welcome sub-plot), and a slim little romance between General von Seidlitz-Gabler’s free-thinking young daughter, Ulrike (Joanna Pettet) and reluctant hero Corporal Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay).
This unique narrative is tied together by director Anatole Litvak’s skilful use of flashback and his cutting is brilliant, but restrained, proving that a complex plot can unfold smoothly and creatively.
The well-structured story balances large scenes of troop actions with intrigues in military offices, parties, and various crime scenes. Fine direction, lush production, and some good performances lift the film above the level of its story(s). And the uniforms . . . ooh, the uniforms.
General Wilhelm Tanz
Corporal Kurt Hartmann
Ulrike von Seydlitz-Gabler
General von Seydlitz-Gabler
Eleanore von Seydlitz-Gabler
Field Marshal Rommel