Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING (1977)

(US/West Germany - 1977)

Directed by Robert Aldrich. Written by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch.  Cast: Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning, Roscoe Lee Browne, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Smith, Morgan Paull, Charles Aidman, Shane Rimmer, Simon Scott, William Hootkins, John Ratzenberger. (R, 144 mins).

SPOILERS discussed throughout

Robert Aldrich's intense post-Vietnam/Cold War/conspiracy nail-biter TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING was a box office flop in 1977 and was quickly shuffled off to a couple of heavily-edited prime-time airings on CBS then ventured into the netherworld of night-owl airings in syndication and a token VHS release in the '80s before largely disappearing altogether.  But it's amassed a sizable cult following over the last 35 years and has just been released by Olive Films on Blu-ray and DVD in a new restoration supervised by Bavaria Film Studio, the film's German co-producer.  Aldrich (1918-1983), the legendary director of KISS ME DEADLY (1955), WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962),  HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1964), THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967), and THE LONGEST YARD (1974) among many others, succeeds not just in making an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but also, amidst some occasionally blustery histrionics of a few cast members, one of the angriest and most cynical films of a decade full of angry and cynical films.  And, it's worth mentioning, the strangely fascinating experience of witnessing a few Hollywood old-timers dropping F-bombs.

Set in "the future" of 1981 and filmed completely in Munich, the film opens to the tune of Billy Preston's 1971 version of "My Country Tis of Thee" and has disgraced General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) escaping from a Montana military prison with three convicts, Willis (Paul Winfield), Augie (Burt Young), and Hoxey (William Smith), and gaining control of Silo 3 at an ICBM facility.  Despite Dell's orders to keep it under control, Hoxey starts shooting the few military personnel on duty and is promptly shot by Dell for his trouble.  Dell, who helped design the installation and the launch systems and knows them inside and out, contacts General Mackenzie (Richard Widmark) and demands to speak to recently-elected President David Stevens (Charles Durning).  Dell gives Stevens his demands:  he's going to launch nine nuclear missiles unless he and his associates get $10 million, Air Force One transport to a country of their choosing, and the President going on national television and reading a classified memo that details the true reasons the US got involved in the Vietnam War.  The patriotic, socially-conscious Dell is disgusted that so many on both sides died for a war that he insists never had to be fought and was completely fabricated by the US government just to make a point to the Soviet Union that, as one person puts it, "we were capable of inhuman acts" in the name of stopping communism.   Dell repeatedly tried to make his views public, but was considered too much of a loose cannon by high-ranking military officials who tried to buy his silence with promotions.  When a drunken Dell got involved in a bar fight with a guy who had a weak heart, Mackenzie and others, including Stevens' chief advisor General O'Rourke (Gerald S. O'Loughlin) trumped up a bogus first-degree murder charge and railroaded Dell into a 30-year prison sentence.  As Dell explains to Mackenzie, "You sent my memos to the shredder, and when I wouldn't trade what I believed in for a star, you sent me to the shredder."

Aldrich lets the film unfold at a deliberate, methodical pace, rarely rushing or glossing over details.  It takes nearly the first hour just to get Silo 3 under the control of Dell and his cohorts and to get the President involved in the matter.  Most of the second hour focuses on the President hashing out the situation with his cabinet members and other national security officials.  It's here where the film gets interesting.  Stevens is an honest, decent man who is revealed to be clearly in over his head as President.  Many of his cabinet members--effectively embodied by a number of geriatric actors--represent the old guard politicians of which Stevens is too naive to understand.  Durning is guilty of some shameless scenery-chewing on several occasions throughout this film, but he's at his best when he's just glaring in disgust at some of the things he's hearing from smug Secretary of State Renfrew (Joseph Cotten) or the glad-handing CIA chief (Leif Erickson), who shrugs his shoulders and callously explains that "it's a game," and "This is just how it's been since 1945, Mr. President."  President Stevens is determined to read this memo on television in order to "open up" to the American people in attempt to heal the still-open wounds of the Vietnam War.  But these old men at the table--protectors of "the way it's always been"--can't allow this to happen.  They can't allow the American people to know that the Vietnam War was for nothing.  Stevens is too earnest, idealistic, trusting, and frankly, not quite ready for prime time to realize what's really going on when it's suggested by the smirking Renfrew--and quickly agreed upon by everyone at the table--that the public cannot be made aware of what's happening at Silo 3 and that he--the President--must go there and talk face-to-face with Dell.  Secretary of Defense Guthrie (Melvyn Douglas), the one man at the table who doesn't come off like a callous, out-of-touch asshole, half-heartedly offers to go in the President's place, but instead, Stevens entrusts him to read the memo on television in two weeks if anything happens to him in Montana.  Also advising the President is General Crane (Charles McGraw), who first gives Mackenzie the go-ahead to send in a four-man team (which includes John Ratzenberger!) to stop Dell by detonating a small atomic device inside Silo 3, and after that fails, Mackenzie positions snipers outside the base to take out Dell and the escaped cons when they exit with the President.

The film is played completely serious, but some of these old men advising Stevens come off a lot like the inhabitants of DR. STRANGELOVE's War Room 20 or so years later.  Both Stevens and Dell are too blinded by ideals and morals to see how the world they're in really operates.   Stevens doesn't even recognize the corruption around him.  Dell is at least aware of it, but thinks Stevens can help him defeat it.  Even after he's been buried by the country he spent his life serving, Dell still thinks a visit from Stevens legitimizes his actions and means the world will finally hear his message.  And Stevens is so outraged by a political pissing match taking priority over people that he actually comes to admire Dell's convictions.  Willis sees through the plan to send Stevens ("They ain't givin' up that gig!  And the President is expendable!") and takes no sides, having only gotten involved for the $10 million ("Grow up, General.  Nobody honors nothin', but that's no reason to blow up the whole world").  The rage is hammered home by a closing credits reprise of the Preston tune that takes on an entirely new significance after the President learns too late that a man's word of honor doesn't mean much anymore.  Aldrich really cranks the tension by letting large sections of the film play out in anywhere from two to four split screens, watching all of the involved parties for extended periods of time.   Aldrich would make a few more movies before his death in 1983, but as his daughter Adell explains in the accompanying 70-minute documentary ALDRICH OVER MUNICH, this was the last of his films that he considered personal and important, the last of his films that made a statement.  And what a statement it is.  Like many films of the 1970s, TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING probably couldn't be made today, at least not without an incredible amount of controversy.  Can you imagine a current film where members of a whistleblowing President's cabinet essentially send him to his own execution?  Maybe 1977 audiences weren't ready for it either, although its commercial failure is probably due more to lackluster handling by a soon-to-be-defunct Allied Artists.  But in a time of great turmoil from the years of American involvement in Vietnam, films like TAXI DRIVER, COMING HOME, and THE DEER HUNTER addressed that pain and trauma in ways that have made them classics that stand the test of time.  TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING raged just as loudly as those other films, and what set it apart was its unique cast of actors more suited for a WWII drama. 

Durning's performance probably could've been a little more controlled (he's much better in the President's more reflective moments), though there's certainly an argument to be made that his outbursts and tantrums are indicative of the character's inability to handle what's happening.  But almost everyone is top-notch here.  Lancaster is great, and the film gives the venerable Cotten, by that time largely reduced to cameos in disreputable Euroschlock, his best late-career role.  Widmark delivers some vintage grumpy Widmark, making his entrance in the back of a limo where the driver is listening to the news on the radio and asks "Do you care about the news, General?" to which Widmark's Mackenzie grumbles "Never between wars."  A couple of minor gripes:  a shot of the President shaving by a bathroom window doesn't really ring true from a security standpoint.  And several exterior shots of the installation housing Silo 3 are obvious miniatures that would barely pass in a GODZILLA movie.

Olive's Blu-ray presents the film in a spiffy new HD transfer in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio that looks very nice.  The lone extra is the 70-minute retrospective ALDRICH OVER MUNICH, which features interviews with numerous behind the scenes personnel (with much input by German assistant director Wolfgang Glattes), and Aldrich's daughter Adell.  O'Loughlin, now 84, is the only cast member present.  There's plenty of anecdotes and vintage on-set photos and it's a must-see for any fan of the film.  TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING is one of those films that's remembered vividly by everyone who's seen it, with its primary obstacle being that nobody's seen it.  This new Blu-ray/DVD release should go far in rescuing this unsung classic of 1970s cinema from years of obscurity.

Slightly hyperbolic UK quad poster

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