DVD Review: Twilight’s Last Gleaming

STUDIO: Olive Films | DIRECTOR: Robert Aldrich | CAST: Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten
RELEASE DATE: 11/13/12 | PRICE: DVD $24.95, Blu-ray $29.95
BONUSES:
“Aldrich Over Munich: The Making of ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’”
SPECS:
R | 146 min. | Thriller | anamorphic widescreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall

 

Although Twilight’s Last Gleaming was made more than a decade after the “nuclear paranoia” cycle of political thrillers had ended, this 1977 nailbiter is one of the most intriguing examples of that sort of scenario. This is because a major star (Burt Lancaster, Sweet Smell of Success) and a major filmmaker (the great maverick Robert Aldrich) collaborated to make a film in which the protagonist’s ultimate mission is to force the U.S. government to admit that the Vietnam War was a pointless act of genocidal gamesmanship.

Aldrich never flinched from upending established genres — he electrified the film noir (Kiss Me Deadly), the war film (Attack!), the melodrama (The Legend of Lylah Clare), the western (Ulzana’s Raid), and the horror movie (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). He was also unapologetically left wing. Anyone familiar with his classic work thus won’t be surprised by the extreme aspects of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, but it still packs a wallop, due to its being both an excellent thriller (that unfortunately tanked at the box office) and a political polemic made for several million dollars by a major production entity (Lorimar, along with a German film company).

Twilights Last Gleaming movie scene

Burt Lancaster (l.) and Paul Winfield hover over the button in the nuclear paranoia thriller Twilight's Last Gleaming.

The plot comes straight out of the caper-movie playbook: four ex-cons break into a nuclear base to hold nine missiles for ransom. Three of them (Paul Winfield, Burt Young and Rich Man Poor Man bad-ass William Smith) are there for the money, but their leader (Lancaster), an ex-general, wants the President of the United States (Charles Durning, Tootsie) to release documents that will reveal the truth about the Vietnam War. As the minutes tick by, the President is shocked by what he reads in the classified documents, and agrees to serve as a short-term hostage in order to get the desperate ex-cons out of the launch facility.

Despite its lengthy running time, the film is taut and suspenseful, thanks to Aldrich’s expert visuals and top-notch editing. His expert-use of split screen heightens the tension, as well as providing masterful “countershots” between characters in different locations.

As is the case with all the great nuclear-paranoia films, the casting here is superlative, mixing Seventies character-actor perennials with Golden Age Hollywood stalwarts. Richard Widmark (Madigan) does a great supporting turn as a no-nonsense general, but Lancaster serves as the “conscience” of the piece incarnating a military man who wants to get the truth out to the public, in the finest tradition of post-Watergate movie heroes.

This disc benefits from a valuable new documentary directed by Robert Fischer (who made the docu about Fassbinder’s I Only Want You to Love Me on that Olive release). Although it would’ve been nice to see Charles Durning speak about the film (only one cast member is interviewed), Fischer covers a lot of important ground with German crew members, Alrich’s biographer and his daughter, discussing the shooting of the film, as well as scenes cut before release (which no longer exist) featuring Vera Miles (Psycho) and Pippa Scott.

Of particular interest is the section on Altman’s method of expertly crafting the split screen images in the film. Fischer’s interviewees also provide comments on the eloquently bleak ending of the film, and Aldrich’s never-realized “dream project” about children staging a protest against war.

 

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”