The Night of the Generals (1967)

Director: Anatole Litvak

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By Roderick Heath

Peter O’Toole’s death last December was a hard blow. One of a formidable battery of theatre-trained talents who found movie stardom as a minor cultural explosion regenerated British performing and cinematic arts in the early ‘60s, O’Toole had electrifying skill and intelligence as an actor. Of course, tributes to O’Toole’s career zeroed in on inarguable highlights. His name-making lead performance in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a textbook of what film star acting can be. His second turn as Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968) combines dramatic largesse and cinematic intimacy with hypnotic finesse. His high-comedy roles in The Ruling Class (1972), The Stunt Man (1980), and My Favorite Year (1983) readily stir fond memories, and the frail but keen intelligence in his late performances in Troy (2004) and Venus (2006) was stirring all the more for the sense those turns were delivered against the resistance of much-abused flesh. O’Toole made quite a few bad movies in the course of his career, some in which he hammed it up or walked through with his contempt all too obvious. He also made many undervalued films, particularly in his post-Lawrence run when his star was at its height. He was epic in Lord Jim (1965), and funny and charming in How to Steal a Million (1966).

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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, 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 and antiauthoritarian narratives. The Night of the Generals is also unusual as an English-language film about WWII 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). The film was based loosely on a novel by Hans Hellmut Kirst, a German writer who, although overshadowed by the likes of Gunther Grass and Heinrich Böll, was one of the first postwar writers to articulate disillusionment with and resentment of the Nazi era, portraying little guys and men of conscience struggling with the all-pervading evil of the regime, gaining particular attention for his much-loved Gunner Asche stories. Kirst, however, had legal problems with the book, which was partly drawn from work by thriller writer James Hadley Chase, and both are credited as the source of the film.

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The film kicks off in Warsaw, 1942. As Operation Barbarossa is nearing Moscow and Polish partisans are tormenting occupying forces, a tenement dweller, Wionczek (Charles Millot), hears an ugly scream on a higher floor, and fearfully hides in a toilet as someone descends the stairs. He catches a glimpse of the man’s military trousers, sporting a red stripe: the uniform of a German general. When he ventures out, he finds the body of a prostitute, Maria Kupiecka, savagely murdered in her apartment. Because she was an occasional informant for the Germans, Maj. Grau (Omar Sharif) of Wehrmacht Military Intelligence is sent to investigate whether it was a crime of punishment or passion. It’s immediately obvious to Grau he’s dealing with a sex killer. After extricating the witness’ testimony and believing it, Grau whittles down suspects to three generals whose whereabouts can’t be established. Gen. Von Seydlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), head of the city’s military garrison, has a penchant for prostitutes. Gen. Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasance), his chief of staff, seems the most suspicious due to his habitual secrecy and lack of personal attachments. Gen. Tanz (O’Toole), in charge of the “Nibelungen” Division of the SS, is newly arrived in the city from the Russian front, personally detailed by Hitler to quell resistance.

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Spiegel threw his weight around a lot during the making of the film, alienating director Anatole Litvak and O’Toole considerably, as he tried to lay claim to ownership of the project. Yet the film represents a coherent culmination for Litvak’s career. The director had fled first from Soviet Ukraine and then from fascist Europe, where he made some notable works, including Mayerling (1936). He then landed in the United States, where he made the long-delayed opening salvo in Hollywood opposition to Nazism, Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). Litvak wasn’t really a film noir director, but his instincts were sharpest with stories involving ordinary people faced with oppressive violence by tyrants and their own foundering sanity and decency, often with political overtones or an acidic contemplation of marriage. All This, and Heaven Too (1940) offered a lunatic wife who compels a hapless husband to murder. Out of the Fog (1941) shows two elderly men driven to contemplate homicide by a vicious gangster. Litvak remade Le Jour Sur Leve (1939), Marcel Carne’s study in fatalism as a man awaits arrest and death after committing a crime of passion, as The Long Night (1947), and transposed Lucille Fletcher’s radio play to film with Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), depicting a woman who, through blind chance, finds her husband is planning to have her killed. The Snake Pit (1948) made headlines for highlighting treatment of the mentally ill, as an unstable young woman is cast into an asylum. In the ’50s, Litvak decamped back to Europe but remained a quasi-Hollywood filmmaker. The Deep Blue Sea (1955) studied suicidal impulse and transgressive romance, and Anastasia (1956) offered an amnesiac young woman whose past is rewritten to fill a political void. Five Miles to Midnight (1962) turns a dying marriage into a bleak Sartrean thriller.

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The Night of the Generals was Litvak’s penultimate film, and it treats his major themes on an epic expanse. The film’s chief liabilities are common to a lot of big-budget films of the era, with a production polished to brittleness and corny asides, like scenes in a tourist-board-approved Parisian night spot, complete with warbling Juliette Greco. But the film’s overlooked status is more due to its cool, cerebral approach to garish subject matter, via the script by Joseph Kessel, a collaborator of Litvak’s who dates back to Mayerling, Paul Dehn, and an uncredited Gore Vidal, who perhaps provided the film’s litany of quotable lines. Litvak eschews suspense sequences and action in favour of generating a trembling sense of neurotic repression and tension, less a whodunit than a study in competing pathologies. An individual’s will to kill is contrasted with an epoch that takes mass murder as an everyday reality and even a gallant activity. Grau’s peculiar sense of mission leads him first to confront his three suspects when they’re together at a reception thrown by Gabler’s haughty wife Eleanore (Coral Browne) for Tanz. Eleanore tries matchmaking by introducing Tanz to her daughter Ulrike (Joanna Pettet), a member of the German equivalent of the WAAFs. But this goes awry, as Ulrike is furious because of her mother’s plotting to have her sent back to Germany to work in a religious hospital, more out distaste for her newfound independence than concern for her safety. She questions Tanz about using dead bodies as sandbags at the siege of Leningrad: “The story has been exaggerated,” Tanz replies, but adds with chilling assurance, “Nobody rots with me.”

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The Night of the Generals charts the various social tensions and blocs within Nazi Germany, giving it a sociohistorical richness as it anatomizes the peculiar madness of the time and place. Gabler is described as a “Junker of the old school” and his aristocratic equivocations contrast both the internalized, ideological attitude of Hitlerian golden boy Tanz, and the intelligent, conscientious characters who keep their heads pulled in nervously whilst trying to work out how to resist. Ulrike is one of these, and another is introduced when Kahlenberge’s adjutant Otto (Nigel Stock) presents his cousin Kurt Hartmann (Tom Courtenay), a newly decorated war hero and an artistic, educated man all too happy to take a staff job under Kahlenberge’s wing. Assigned to program music for Eleanore’s soirée, Hartmann encounters Ulrike and quickly becomes her lover, confessing, to her delight, that he was only decorated because he ran away whilst the rest of his unit were killed in battle. The two lovers neatly fill in for the perspective of the late ’60s audience in their disdain for their elders and betters, and sense of unity in being endangered by the war, as Ulrike’s already lost two boyfriends in Russia. Grau, equally detached from the Nazi cause, makes it his mission within the delineations of his job, to punish hubris: “We live in an age in which dead bodies lie around in the street,” Kahlenberge barks at him, but Grau invokes the legend of the Eumenides and declares his intent: “Some general thought he could play God in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield. Well, I am going to prove to him that he is not God.”

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Tanz, on the other hand, articulates the mix of idealism and low chauvinism that defined the drug-like appeal for those who were on the “right” side of the Nazi ethos, airily declaring things for Ulrike’s benefit, like, “We’re building a new world order—women should not be exempt from playing their part,” and trying to win hearts and minds with food and sweets for the homeless children of Warsaw. At the same time, his plan to crush Polish resistance is characterised by Kahlenberge as monstrous, as it has a contingency to demolish the entire city if necessary. “What constitutes resistance?” Kahlenberge questions, “A rock thrown at his golden head?” Grau, trying to interview the overlord, becomes privy to the operation, as buildings are swept clear and partisans gunned down in the street, before Tanz casually has tanks pummel buildings to rubble in an orgiastic survey of destruction. There’s anticipation in Tanz (whose name implicitly evokes the tötentanz or death-dance from plague-era religious allegory), as a character and locus of thematic interest, of Apocalypse Now (1979) and Schindler’s List (1993), in the fascination with the almost mystical figure of a mad military leader who commits crimes that seem absurd against the backdrop of generally permitted murder, and whose power takes on hubristic scale. Grau sees Tanz is a megalomaniac, but is also persuaded that Tanz is not his killer: why would someone who can get their rocks off on such a scale need to kill a prostitute? Grau’s gambit at the soirée misfires, as Kahlenberge defensively has him transferred to Paris.

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Two years later, the players are reunited as the Allied landings at Normandy bring Tanz, Gabler, and Kahlenberge to Paris, stirring Grau to reopen his investigation. Tanz is assigned by the Fuhrer to mastermind retaliation, but Gabler and Kahlenberge insist that he take time off, supposedly to give them time to prepare military resources for him. Tanz reluctantly obeys, and Kahlenberge frustrates Hartmann’s impending reunion with Ulrike by insisting that he chauffeur Tanz about the city. As Hartmann is forced into close company with Tanz, he becomes privy to the deep veins of neurosis underlying Tanz’s self-willed image as the iron-willed, water-drinking, obsessive-compulsive übermensch, gets stinking drunk and smoking profusely whilst Hartmann gives him a tour of Paris. Much of the film’s middle third is dedicated to an intensely rhythmic portrait of mental upheaval and dread, building fascinating, troubling little scenes like orchestral movements. One such scene comes when Hartmann is distracted from his guide duties by the sight of Tanz guzzling spirits in the back seat, an intimate play of shots that compartmentalise the two men in separate universes. but unites them in the rearview mirror until the general notices and tells the corporal to keep his eye on the road. Most striking is a scene that’s repeated in ritualistic fashion, when Hartmann takes Tanz to an art gallery filled with paintings requisitioned for Nazi bigwigs.

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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 also notes with malign humour the nature of the Nazi antipathy to “decadent” art, for its stylised, introspective exploration of the vagaries of human nature, that offend most particularly the psychopath. Tanz asks Hartmann to define “decadent” art, and Hartmann replies that according to his best definition, the potent art is anything but decadent, but then appends his reply with dry political awareness, “But I don’t really know what decadence is—not officially anyway.”

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Hartmann and Tanz’s relationship is unusually charged because Tanz generally has utmost contempt for his underlings, who fear his rages for good reason: he has one orderly confined to barracks for a month for getting polish on his boot laces and abuses another for having dirt under his fingernails. He finds in Hartmann a subordinate as intelligent as himself and more cultured, but still a subordinate, thus all the more pleasurable to destroy. Tanz seems to descend into a fugue state in his first encounter with the Van Gogh, and might have no memory of it the next day after a drinking binge. He nonetheless insists on a return and confronts the painting again, and this time seems to gain control over his stylised doppelgänger. Tanz even seems humanised after this, as he makes conversation with Hartmann and congratulates him on his “good taste” after forcing Hartmann to show his wallet photo of Ulrike. This conceals, however, Tanz forming a plan of attack so he can indulge his intimate homicidal side.

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Litvak, like many old studio dogs, was trying to learn new tricks, and he annexed flourishes of New Wave cinema with more success than many, giving the film a stylish instability as he conjoins theatrical actor blocking and glossily over-lit interiors with islets of modernist punch: dialogue becoming voiceover, jump cuts, and whip-pan transitions pepper the film. One shot takes in the former Polish royal residence as a tourist attraction in the present day, and then cuts to the same angle when depicting the palace’s days as Gabler’s headquarters. The film’s colour palate is intelligently muted, the blood reds of the generals’ uniform insignia isolated in fields of hard greys and browns, with other colours washed out. One of the film’s strongest images is Wionczek’s eye peering out through the fateful gap in the lavatory door, grain in the wood and terror in the eye captured as a precise emblem of the era’s paranoid, seamy, assailed mindset, reminiscent of the similarly surreal shots of the spying eyes in Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), but with the innocent spying out on the evil rather than the other way around. The stark and eerie opening credits play out the first murder as a fetishistic dreamscape, picking out details like fishnet stockings on glossy legs and squirming fingers in black leather gloves, flickering in and out of distorting shots, before the fatal knife swing hacks through a light bulb in slow motion, an eerie, technically accomplished touch that was stolen for the TV show “Callan” a few years later. The film has an uncommon flash-forward structure, as the film leaps between the 1940s and 1965, eschewing introduction via the present tense to emphasise not the past nature of events, but the still-vibrant connection between eras and the people reporting them, where consequences are still being played out.

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Tanz sets up Hartmann to be his patsy as he kills another prostitute (Véronique Vendell) and gives Hartmann the choice of either fleeing for his life or having his brains blown out. When Hartmann asks Tanz why he’s become a killer, Tanz replies, “Oh, the war, I suppose,” whilst espousing his confident belief that Hartmann would inevitably be executed for the murder instead of him because, naturally, he’s a general, and his word is worth more. Grau, however, realises exactly what’s happened when his contact in the Parisian police, Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), calls him to the crime scene and then learns Hartmann was assigned to Tanz.

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Whilst O’Toole is dominant in the film, he’s surrounded by a cast of mostly British and French actors of enormous vitality. It’s distinctly possible, for instance, that Grau is Sharif’s best performance. The Egyptian actor has wryly commented on the degree to which producers were willing to cast him in nonethnic roles according to his star status. Reunited here with O’Toole after Lawrence as they were both still contracted to Spiegel for frustratingly little pay, Sharif couldn’t have asked for a more different role to his image as swarthy lover, with Grau as a poised, electrically intelligent savant who has no interest either in hiding his smarts or his delight in making his superiors uncomfortable. Sharif relishes the dialogue thrown his way, from imploring a pathologist at a murder scene, “There’s no need to be vivid,” to charmingly telling Morand he knows his Resistance code name. Grau, like Hartmann, is absurdly out of place in this milieu: cold-shouldered by the German elite for his impolitic zeal, he finds friendship with Morand. The two men dine as gentlemanly enemies, with Grau cutting deals to release some of Morand’s men in exchange for gathering intelligence on the generals, whilst swapping oddball pearls of wisdom like, “Sex and great cuisine do not mix.”

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Indeed, the depth of quality in the cast is another of the film’s major assets, with mostly British actors modishly familiar at the time. Handed the lion’s share of good lines, Pleasence is superlative as Kahlenberge, who approaches a world that disgusts him with dripping cynicism and abuse of the bottle. Particularly good is his early interview with Hartmann, as he surveys his press clippings and notes with the finest edge of mockery, “I see that you are the reincarnation of Siegfried, a German hero of the Golden Age!” And, later, when assigning Hartmann to drive Tanz, telling him to satisfy the general’s taste with a very Vidal-esque twist: “Let us hope that whatever it is, it is not you, corporal. However, if it should be, remember that you’re serving the Fatherland.” There’s an obvious, but well-handled irony in the suspicious Kahlenberge turning out to be the film’s moral centre: he is involved in the July plot to kill Hitler, whilst Gabler knows what’s going on but wants to remain “usefully alive” sitting on the fence. The Night of the Generals also provides an amusing keepsake of the days when Tom Courtenay was considered a heartthrob, as Hartmann’s incredible appeal to women is spoken of even as his spindly physique is mocked. Courtenay is certainly fine as Hartmann, however, as he brings the right mix of doe-eyed sensitivity and discomforted acumen and angst to the role.

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The sadly neglected Pettet, who hit big in ’67 after her other highest-profile role that same year in Casino Royale, is more uncertain as the icily aristocratic Ulrike. She’s most effective when firing off arch rejoinders to Browne’s patented maternal monster and O’Toole’s marble demigod, aware of the contradiction that wartime has liberated her whilst condemning millions of others to horror, but as she’s slowly humanised by love for Hartmann, she becomes less interesting. Christopher Plummer has a strong cameo as Rommel, whose joining the plot is celebrated by Kahlenberge and the others. The film links Grau’s intent to catch the god-playing general with Rommel’s intent to deny Hitler the glory of a fiery apocalyptic end: both are heroic in motivation, but touched by hubris conjoined with the core problem of the Nazi cause, and thus both men are unable to prevent horror. Rommel’s wounding by a strafing Allied plane hurts their confidence. Four decades before Valkyrie, The Night of the Generals encompasses a brief, but sharp and accurate telling of Von Stauffenberg’s (Gérard Buhr) excruciatingly near miss at killing the Fuhrer. Once the bomb goes off and the plotters assume victory, Kahlenberge dispatches men to arrest Tanz at his division headquarters, but Grau gets there ahead of them to arrest him for murder. Tanz’s response is merely to shoot Grau and claim he was one of the traitors, and he accepts the Nazi salute from his massed soldiers as Hitler’s survival is announced. If the film had ended here, its portrait of an age of moral nullity would be bleak, but, of course, there’s another act to play out in peacetime, as the flashes to 1965 have promised.

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Morand, now an Interpol agent, is trying to piece together the crime to honour his dead friend, and he explores that peacetime landscape with its perspective-imbuing vignettes. Otto has become a fat and satisfied restaurateur, hailing the Marshall Plan. Kahlenberge, who fled ahead of the vicious reprisals for the assassination plot, is now a busy diplomat, recalling with fascination Grau’s obsession in the midst of a collapsing world. Gabler is still sitting on the fence, and he and his wife are alienated from Ulrike, with Eleanore sniping, “Our generation believed in being happy!” Tanz’s pompous adjutant Sandauer (John Gregson) has become a Volkswagen executive, exasperatedly bossing around Spanish and Italian labourers because he “can’t get Germans for real work anymore.” Ulrike has dropped out and become a farmer, married to a man named Luckner, who is, naturally, Hartmann, living under an alias. Tanz has just been released from prison after serving 20 years for war crimes, and now plans to attend a reunion of his division in a politically charged moment of fascist solidarity. Tanz looks like he’s calcified in prison, but he’s already committed another murder, one that has drawn Morand back to the case, and he and Inspector Hauser (Michael Goodliffe), the investigating officer, collaborate to confront Tanz with a greyed, frayed, but coldly intent Hartmann. Few film resolutions are more satisfying than this one, as Morand goads Tanz to shoot himself, his body left sprawled on the banquet table under Nazi paraphernalia under the stunned and silent eyes of his men—one last victim of the war and one delayed, but not denied, serving of justice.

  • Amy spoke:
    23rd/02/2014 to 3:53 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of this excellent film, which I saw about 10 years ago for the first time. It is amazing how much I didn’t remember!

    I too think that this might be Sharif’s best performance; it’s always interesting to watch him act opposite O’Toole because the two apparently were lifelong friends after “Lawrence.” I wish they’d had more film work together and that Sharif had had more roles like this … but at least we get to enjoy their work here and in “Lawrence.”

  • Vanwall spoke:
    23rd/02/2014 to 5:01 pm

    An interesting double bill with “The Odessa File”, another double-back-flash-back film about mania and the Nazis. “The Night of the Generals” wasn’t a critic’s or audience’s fave, I think because it was before the ‘Columbo’-style character-based solution mysteries were popular onscreen. Everyone was looking for conventionality, rather than Sharif”s excellent tenacity coupled with Noiret’s patented phlegmatic investigator. O’Toole had a strange vibe in this one, like he was robotic to a degree, I feel that every time I view it. One of those films of supporting performances for me, I’m afraid, it had a little dissonance in the way it was presented, but I like it much more than a lot of people do. Excellent review of a film that will probably get more viewing as a remembrance of O’Toole, but I watch it for Sharif, the fox and hound in one character.

  • The Siren spoke:
    23rd/02/2014 to 7:56 pm

    I’m extremely fond of this movie and delighted that you wrote such a meticulous appreciation of its good points. And I also think it’s a high point for Sharif.

  • Roderick spoke:
    28th/02/2014 to 10:49 pm

    Sorry, guys, for taking so long to respond here. The last two weeks have included both triumph and tragedy in my house, and it’s been extremely distracting.

    I’m glad to find so much agreement, particularly from our dear beloved Siren, over the stature of Sharif in this film, especially considering the potential oddness of the casting. It’s fascinating how, relieved of the weight of his own romantic image, Sharif’s capacity to project intelligence is on screen here. What’s doubly interesting about his role here is that it’s generally so passive and minimal, to a degree, and yet Grau dominates the film’s moral landscape. I agree, Vanwall, that there’s a robotic quality to O’Toole’s performance, but this is not a flaw, rather a conscious and explicable piece of characterisation. OToole offers a portrait of a man who’s desperately trying to remain in control of explosive forces within him. The bit I mention when he’s trying to remain stiff and dignified even though he’s drunk off his ass is key to this. However, to a certain extent I think Donald Pleasence outshines all of them. His line deliveries still make me laugh after umpteen viewings.

  • Joe spoke:
    3rd/03/2014 to 1:54 pm

    Yes, thanks for the write up. I had forgotten about this movie. I saw it a few times on TV growing up and always enjoyed it. I’m looking forward to viewing it again as an adult (?); my library just got it in for me!!!!!

  • redmike spoke:
    21st/04/2014 to 6:21 am

    Hi

    just found your site while browsing for something else entirely (as is the way of the web), I finally saw Night of the Generals last year having not been in any rush to do so due to so many luke-warm reviews. Well more fool we for not making up my own mind earlier – its a belter of a drama with more great scenes, performances and dialogue than many much better received films.

    There is one moment that jumps out for the wrong reason however – late in the film, during the reunion climax if I recall, one mention of a name is overdubbed (and badly). I take it this was to correct either an audio failure or maybe the actor in question (forget who) just spoke the character name incorrectly and no one spotted it at the time. A jarring moment – anyone else hear it?

  • Roderick spoke:
    21st/04/2014 to 7:46 am

    Hi redmike. Thanks for commenting and I’m glad you enjoyed the film.

    There’s quite a bit of overdubbing in the film, because of the large number of European actors in it and the problems of recording sound on location with the equipment of the time. I don’t know if I’ve noticed the specific moment you’re citing, but the practice does tend to bug me as well, as it often makes a scene start to feel subtly artificial. Indeed, there’s a lot of it in moviemaking in general from the time for the same reasons. Once you start paying attention to it you can become well-versed in the voiceover artists, like the ubiquitous Robert Rietty, whose voice can be heard coming out of dozens of mouths in movies where they did the post work in Britain.

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