The story concerns the murder of Polish prostitute Maria Kupiecka in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. Ordinarily this wouldn't be of much importance to either the German occupiers or the local Polish police, but for two things: firstly, investigating German Intelligence officer Major Grau (Omar Sharif) is obsessed with the idea of justice for all ("Justice can sometimes hear the cry of a murdered woman," he insists), whether prostitute or not, and secondly, Maria happened to also be cooperating with the German authorities, meaning Grau has another incentive to find her killer.
There was only one witness, a fellow tenant in Maria's apartment building. He only got a glimpse of her killer: whoever he was, he was wearing a Wehrmacht uniform with a red stripe down the pants legs. Grau, intrigued, realizes only German generals have red stripes on their pants. A highly skilled investigator, he quickly narrows his list of suspects down to three officers who have no alibi: Herbert von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), his aide Klaus Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence), and the recently arrived Wilhelm Tanz (Peter O'Toole). All of them claim innocence, but Grau is driven by a desire to see the killer brought to justice, as he is disgusted that they are hiding behind their rank. Grau is ultimately reassigned to Paris when his investigation comes too close for comfort.
The second half of the movie moves to Paris in July 1944. The war is turning against the Nazis and several of the main characters become involved in Claus Von Stauffenberg's plot to overthrow Hitler, complicating Grau's murder investigation. He makes a deal with French Inspector Morand (Philippe Noiret), agreeing to release French resistance fighter in exchange for assistance. After another prostitute turns up dead, Grau decides to arrest his culprit amidst the chaos of the attempted anti-Nazi coup.
The movie was notable in its time for its All-Star Cast and extensive location shooting; notably, it was the first Anglo-American production to film in Warsaw during the Cold War. Unfortunately the production was rather tumultuous: shooting began without a finished screenplay, with producer Sam Spiegel bringing in numerous script doctors (notably Gore Vidal and Robert Anderson) for rewrites while the movie was in production, and his domineering producing style aggravated both director Anatole Litvak and the cast members. Though the movie received respectable critical reviews, it flopped at the box office and became one of Spiegel's least-successful movies.
Tropes used in this novel:
- Action Prologue: The movie opens with a brief scene of Grau avoiding an ambush by Polish resistance fighters.
- All Germans Are Nazis: The film goes to great lengths to both subvert and avert this. Grau in particular seems to have no love for the goosestepping thugs who serve the Party's interests.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Tanz is driven by a compulsive desire to kill. Even he can't quite narrow down exactly what's wrong with him. After much soul-searching, he can only conclude that there are "reasons," but the war is what brought his homicidal tendencies to the surface.
- Ate His Gun: Tanz at the end, after he's Driven to Suicide.
- Bad Boss: Tanz frequently punishes his various subordinates for minor infractions, such as not washing their hands.
- Bald of Evil: What we're led to believe Kahlenberge is. He's actually:
- Bald of Awesome: Despite looking like a stereotypical Nazi skinhead, Kahlenberge is actually one of the most moral people in the film other than Grau. He hates the hero worship surrounding Tanz, finds his actions in Warsaw to be despicable, and eventually joins the plot to kill Hitler.
- Deadpan Snarker: The movie is filled with them, but the most notable one is Kahlenberge, who exudes snark in every scene.
- Dirty Coward: What Hartmann thinks he is.
- Lovable Coward: What Ulrika thinks he is.
- Flash Forward: The movie frequently jumps ahead to (what was then) the present day of the 1960s, showing an older Morand continuing Grau's investigation into the murder, allowing us to see what all the main characters who survived the war are up to.
- High-Class Glass: Von Seidlitz-Gabler wears a monocle in several scenes.
- Frame-Up: This happens twice:
- In the first instance, Tanz frames Hartmann for the latest murder in Paris.
- In the second instance, when Grau comes to arrest Tanz for the murders shortly after the assassination attempt against Hitler, Tanz blows him away and then claims Grau had been in on the plot against the Führer.
- The General's Daughter: Gabler's daughter Ulrike who falls in love with Corporal Hartmann and marries and has a child with him when he's hiding under an assumed name.
- Kicked Upstairs: At one point, the generals conspire to get Grau off their backs by getting him promoted to colonel.
- A Million Is a Statistic: French Inspector Morand at one point insists that "murder is the occupation of generals," prompting a darkly amused Grau to fire back that "what's admirable on the large scale is monstrous on the small."
- Mook Lieutenant: Grau has Captain Engels, while Tanz has Colonel Sandauer.
- My Master, Right or Wrong: Despite being a Bad Boss, Tanz has the total dedication and Undying Loyalty of his men, who all seem to endure his abuse just to be near him.
- Nazi Nobleman: Von Seidlitz-Gabler is a subversion. He's a nobleman, and serving in the German Army, but maintains an air of neutrality throughout the film, and never actually expresses any Nazi ideals (beyond turning a blind eye to Tanz's harsh military practices).
- Nazi Protagonist: Except for Inspector Morand, who is a French policeman, all of the main characters serve in the German military in one fashion or another, even von Seidlitz-Gabler's daughter.
- Obligatory War-Crime Scene: The scene where Tanz's troops massacre several inhabitants of Warsaw.
- Pet the Dog: Tanz shows some Pragmatic Villainy by insisting that his men carry snacks and treats for Polish children, insisting that they need to win the people's confidence in order to gain their cooperation.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Grau, in spades. No matter what, he will solve the murder because he hates the fact the killer is a general who thought he could hide behind his rank.
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer: Christopher Plummer makes a cameo appearance as Erwin Rommel but did not feature on advertising publicity of the time.
- Suspect Is Hatless: Averted. While the witness could only provide one, seemingly unimportant detail regarding the killer (he was wearing trousers with a red stripe on them), that description greatly narrows down the field of suspects, as only German generals wear trousers with a red stripe. Major Grau quickly narrows the suspect pol to the three generals in the city who do not have alibis.
- Terrified of Germs: Tanz, so much so that he always wears Conspicuous Gloves.