Twilight’s Last Gleaming
Olive Films, Blu-ray, $29.95, DVD $24.95, R
Released a few weeks after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, Robert Aldrich’s 1977 political thriller “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” found few takers for its angry denunciation of America’s Cold War policies.
Vietnam was over, Watergate was behind us, and Richard M. Nixon was enjoying his pardon. The film-going public was not interested in Aldrich’s acerbic agitprop, even if it was embedded within a tight, effective thriller about a disillusioned general (Burt Lancaster), who takes over a missile silo in Montana, placing nine nuclear warheads under his control.
And yet the reputation of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” has grown over time, particularly as it became difficult to see. It was not suited to the videocassette era – the split-screen effects that Aldrich develops so brilliantly barely register in low resolution.
A major remastering has been carried out by Bavaria Media, and “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” has emerged in a superb Blu-ray edition that does justice to Aldrich’s formal design. (The disc includes Robert Fischer’s fine 66-minute documentary about the film’s re-creation of America on a German soundstage, “Aldrich Over Munich.”)
Aldrich was no stranger to weapons of mass destruction, having configured his 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation, “Kiss Me Deadly,” a covert critique of the Cold War mentality, into an anti-heroic quest in which the unholy grail turned out to be a thermonuclear device tucked in a handy leather case. (A similar case, containing a similar device, reappears in “Twilight.”) As he had in the earlier film, Aldrich had taken an apolitical thriller (in this case, Walter Wager’s novel “Viper Three”) and recharged its ideological implications.
The screenplay for “Twilight,” written by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch under Aldrich’s supervision, turned the Lancaster character, Lawrence Dell, into a moral crusader: a senior officer (and survivor of a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp) who believes he has uncovered the hideous truth behind America’s seemingly suicidal military policy in Southeast Asia, and is determined to present it to the world, even if it means using nuclear blackmail to force the hand of the president (Charles Durning).
It matters little if that truth is neither entirely shocking nor entirely convincing. Its significance is the messianic fervor it inspires in Dell, an exalted state that Lancaster is particularly well equipped to portray. “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” was his fourth film with Aldrich, in an association that dated to the beginning of Aldrich’s career, with the 1954 films “Apache” and “Vera Cruz.”
Lancaster’s aristocratic bearing; his clenched, masochistic sense of self-discipline; and the emotional isolation that seemed always to accompany him come together to make Dell a figure of classically tragic proportions.
Locked in the missile silo with his confederates (Paul Winfield, Burt Young and William Smith), Dell becomes the pivotal figure in a three-way standoff, his unassailable integrity played against a savvy, deal-making president (Durning’s performance seems to anticipate Bill Clinton) and the coldly pragmatic career officer (Richard Widmark) assigned to eliminate Dell.
With the action compressed into the course of a single day, Aldrich plays the three characters against one another, although each is confined to his own restricted space: Lancaster in the silo, Durning in the Oval Office and Widmark in a command trailer outside the base.
Split-screen editing had become a cliche in the 1970s, but Aldrich seems to reinvent the technique. Instead of using the multiple images to open up the drama, Aldrich employs the technique to bring the three characters, and the lines of action they carry, into a single dramatic space, giving the wide-ranging action the cramped intensity of a chamber piece.
In the end, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” is the opposite of a message movie. The film climaxes on a note of shock, futility and blank despair, that Dell, to borrow the title of a 1970 Aldrich film, is “too late the hero,” that the course of history can’t be altered.
Though Aldrich could not have known it at the time, the film was to be his last gleaming as well, the final great work of a great American filmmaker.