Now that we dodged the Mayan apocalypse, it’s time to offer our thanks to the powers that be. Not simply because planet Earth has been spared (which, pros and cons considered, isn’t necessarily a bad thing) but because Robert Aldrich’s great rarely-seen 1977 classic TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, heinously off the radar for nearly 40 years, has been meticulously restored and is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD, courtesy of Olive Films/Bavaria Media GMBH.
Trust me, this could be the finest home video release of the year – certainly the most important. That’s mostly due to its political vent, but, make no mistake about it: TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING is a first-rate thriller that, throughout its lightning-paced 144 minute running time, will have you on the edge of your seat/sofa/significant other. Quite frankly, if this harrowing textbook on suspense movie-making doesn’t scare the crap out of you, your ass is in major need of re-tooling.
As one might surmise, I am not just a bit prejudiced when it comes to this flick; indeed, in keeping with the vernacular of the narrative, I favor this work with extreme prejudice. Bottom line, if not one of Aldrich’s best movies, TWILIGHT’S is certainly in the top two. I absolutely cite it as my favorite American pic of the 1970s, even though its actual roots of origin are…well, in twilight. And for reasons that will be explained.
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING is based on Walter Wager’s novel Viper Three. It chronicled a small group of escaped convicts taking over a nuclear facility. Before offering the project to Aldrich, it was handed to TV sitcom director Jay Sandrich (The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Benson; Two and a Half Men). Burt Lancaster was given first refusal on it – and he refused. When Aldrich got hold of the existing treatment, he sloughed it off, but saw a much broader canvas on which to express his art. He brought in scriptwriters Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch and together they changed its course from TV-movie pap to electrifying nail-biting fare. As with his celebrated 1955 adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly, Aldrich threw out the book’s original storyline (replacing the hunt for a drug cache with a small atomic bomb); and added his own twist; in the Viper Three redux, the leader of the escaped quartet of psychopaths would be former disgraced General Lawrence Dell, a fanatic, but an ideological one. Framed for murder, Dell’s plan is to hold the world hostage (echoing the title of Aldrich’s second big-screen film, 1954’s A World for Ransom). Aside from a ten million dollar payoff, guaranteed freedom to a country of his choice (with the President as their human-held passport), the Associates and Aldrich spiced up the proceedings with a pip of jalapeno pepper: NCS-9759, a Top Secret document revealing that the entire Viet Nam war was a sham, one in which the then-current administration knowingly sacrificed hundreds of thousands of lives as a bravado show of one-upmanship to the Soviets. Unless the classified material is released to the American public, to restore the country’s confidence for its leaders, Dell is prepared to launch nine nuclear-tipped titan missiles.
With this demented literal bombshell thrown into the mix, Lancaster now immediately signed on. Like Aldrich and fellow cast member Richard Widmark, the Oscar-winning actor was a staunch progressive liberal. This likewise brought many of the high-profile cast aboard as well, most of who held similar political beliefs.
And here’s where it all went hinky. No major American studio would touch the refurbished TWILIGHT’S, forcing Aldrich and co-producer Lorimar to seek funding elsewhere (the U.S. military, which usually cooperates with major motion pictures, not surprisingly nixed any chances of utilizing domestic armed service sites). Flanked by stars like Lancaster and Widmark, the director was welcomed with open arms by the German-based company Geria Film Bavaria. With terrain remarkably resembling the Montana landscape (where the silo missile base is situated), TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING‘s overseas locations were locked up; the final cherry of a superb German art and set department (constructing a minutely-detailed Oval Office and air base interiors) gave pre-production an enthusiastic green light…and, before you could say, “Aktion!,” TLG was off and running. Ultimately, the picture would secure American distribution through the barely-functioning Allied Artists.
Of course, as we learned with Seven Days in May, anytime Burt Lancaster plays a mad general intent on taking control of America, you’re in for a rollicking good time. In the case of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, Burt is less the fascist and more the moral conscience. Aligned with a disreputable trio of sociopaths (Paul Winfield, Burt Young, William Smith), Lancaster’s character is soon aware that, just as his experience with the military, he has been thoroughly hoodwinked. None of the three are adept in the tasks they swore expertise. Winfield’s Powell curtly responds, “I would have told you I was George Wallace with a tan to get out of that s**t hole!” To which Lancaster flashes his trademark grin and “Ha-Ha” laughs, “Willie-boy, you’re beautiful.”
Even better was the shock of seeing the veteran star spout epithets like a truck driver. “That green s**t produces a deadly vapor when exposed to oxygen!” is how he describes a small vial of sarin (the first time I ever heard mention of the horrific chemical weapon). When mob thug Young freezes while helping disarm the emerald-colored liquid-fortified launch control, Lancaster totally loses it and demands Winfield’s assist, “Powell, fer Christ sake come here and give me a F**KING HAND!” It’s a mind-boggling moment in cinema, both hilarious and startling. And that’s just the tip of the nuclear warhead. Once the launch code and keys are successfully retrieved, a proud Dell announces, “Gentlemen, we are now a super power.” Indeed they are – which makes ultra-hawkish General Richard Widmark’s smug “Oh-yeah-I-dare-you” attitude all the more terrifying. Botching an attempt to retrieve the silo, Widmark faces Lancaster’s wrath with an explosive “Try one more stunt and I’ll light up the f**king sky!”
When it looks as if they might get their way, a stunned Powell admits to Dell, “Just want you to know that you’re some muthaf**ka!” to which Lancaster delivers an appreciatively solemn “Thank you.” It could be the most noble moment in cinema.
Although Lancaster still had a couple of impressive thespian belt-notches ahead of him (Atlantic City, Local Hero), TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING can essentially be considered his last hurrah (or last ha-ha). It certainly was for Aldrich and for many movie fans too – i.e. the end-of-the-line for casts of this magnitude to be assembled for one outstanding movie.
How so? Aside from the aforementioned actors, TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING boasts an array of OMG faces, from Charles Durning’s fantastic turn as the President (topped only by Gerald S. McLoughlin as his Brigadier General aide de camp) to his slimy advisors/Joint Chiefs of Staff: Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotten, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Marshall and Simon Scott. Richard Jaeckel appears as a former colleague of Lancaster’s and Roscoe Lee Browne as a college professor early-on pleading for the release of an imprisoned militant.
It’s the latter that immediately sets the tone of deceit, deception and hypocrisy that permeates every frame of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING. When Durning has difficulty verbally responding to Browne’s request (the man in question being involved with the professor’s daughter), the scholar understandably reminds Durning that while he was “…not a brilliant student, (he is) an honest man.” O’Loughlin chuckles after Browne exits, wondering what the prof would think if he knew that the prisoner was already sacrificed in a smarmy arms trade deal.
O’Loughlin is in effect Durning’s consigliere, very much mirroring Winfield’s relationship to Lancaster. His performance is primo Supporting Actor Oscar caliber, shamefully ignored as was Durning, Aldrich, editor Michael Luciano, Lancaster, Douglas, the set and art direction… Damn, like the inflammatory document itself, no one wanted to admit that this movie ever existed.
When Dell’s demands are made known to the President, he accesses the file and his reaction goes from numb disbelief to furious anger. “OUTRAGEOUS, horrifying…I can’t believe it!” When he asks Cotten, who was present at the original meeting, how he could have condoned such a decision, the manipulative politico quietly utters perhaps the movie’s most chilling retort, “That’s blood over the dam.”
Durning is all for making public the contents to the country – at which point his staff turns on him like a pack of wolves. With the same condescending attitude our politicians display toward us (“…could they take a jolt like this?”), they all-too-convincingly cede to the negative. Perhaps, they snidely offer, in the future…releasing a few of the facts of the document…. (a sickening reflection that these ghouls’ current real-life cowardly House contemporaries hold toward, oh, let’s say…ummm…immigration, women, gun legislation, science…).
The far more desirable alternative is to plant a mini-atom bomb in one of the silos, taking out the domestic terrorists in one fell swoop. “They’ll be jelly in milliseconds,” happily announces one of the Joint Chiefs. When Durning inquires about the surrounding Montana inhabitants, he’s told that some unfortunate fallout would be necessary. Oh, well (shrug, yawn).
Alarmingly, he caves and agrees, which sets off the “lighting up the sky” incident alluded to earlier – a truly tense sequence (unintentionally made more uncomfortable when the actor playing one of the soldiers assigned to install and detonate the device is shown to be none other than John Ratzenberger, the inept Cliff from the Cheers TV series).
The resulting reaction from Lancaster is to prove he’s not bluffing; he initiates the launch of one of the missiles – a sequence so overpowering for its genuine tension as well as its actual aping of recent history. The shots of the President and the Joint Chiefs watching the previous attack on the silo-ensconced terrorists via a giant Oval Office close-circuit television screen are nearly identical to those famous images of Obama and his staff viewing the real-time raid on Osama Bin Laden.
When the leaders all unanimously decide that the President is to go along as a hostage (with snipers hopefully preventing the out-of-country kidnapping), Durning freaks out to O’Loughlin in the movie’s undeniably greatest scene (“Those pricks down there are trying to bury me!”). This again is doppelganger to Lancaster’s fate, realized when the renegade general accuses Widmark of sending “…me to the shredder.”
Winfield is actually more the anti-hero of the piece, convincing Lancaster to not ignite a warhead (inevitably saving the world) whereas O’Loughlin insists that Durning has “GOT to go” as living collateral.
Hey, I’m not doing this movie anywhere near the justice it deserves. You gotta go out and buy it, like today! As much as it blew me away in 1977 (I saw it several times before its quick disappearance from view), TWILIGHT’S was a notorious flop, a sad disappointment to both Aldrich and Lancaster, who championed it to their dying days; it’s even better now. And for a variety of reasons, many of them technical.
Part of the brilliance of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING is the revolutionary use of split screens, depicting a myriad of events simultaneously. I don’t have to tell you what varying generations of printing looked like in the 1970s, the ugliest decade of American filmmaking. Worse, when briefly released on home video in the 1980s, the rights belonged to Fox, who squeegeed the picture on laser through the notorious Technidisc company – an outfit infamous for awful-looking (and usually defective) platters (I’m still convinced they used Silly Putty to do their transfers). Of course, the print was full-frame, which made watching what laughingly passed for visuals ever more unbearable. Overseas the video fate for TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING wasn’t helped by the fact that, not wanting to touch volatile political dogma, various countries chopped huge sections out of the movie. Ironically, the one DVD that had a proper letterboxed edition was missing nearly fifty minutes of footage! TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, it seemed, was well on its way to becoming a modern lost motion picture.
Mercifully, all this nightmarish mishegas is now at an end. “One of the most requested films of all time,” shouted the Olive Films press releases. And, folks, this is no hyperbole! For those familiar with TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, this is an etched-in-stone truism.
And one could not have hoped for a better revival. Olive Films and Bavaria Media have gone the distance. The newly re-mastered and restored (a word that gets used way too negligently, but not here) TWILIGHT’S is, to put it mildly, a sight to behold. No more grain, no more murky imagery. It’s all been frame-by-frame reassembled in 1080p High Definition. To see this in crystal clarity (especially those split screens) is the homage d.p. Robert Hauser has deserved for over 35 years! The colors and flesh tones finally pop, the detail at last is immaculate. The crisp mono audio allows us to fully enjoy Jerry Goldsmith’s score and, more significantly, Billy Preston’s sardonic rendition of the anthem My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. Naturally, it’s the complete Aldrich cut too – which, I must add, requires a slight sidebar. In the 1977 previews, a marginally longer version was exhibited featuring actress Vera Miles in a supporting role as the First Lady. While this didn’t interfere with the narrative, it was also an unnecessary appendage to the two-and-a-half hour running time. Prior to the official U.S. unveiling, Miles’ scenes were removed, under the watchful scissors of Aldrich. The only reason I bring this up is that Olive’s renovation of TWILIGHT’S is so sharp that one can clearly see Miles’ portrait on Durning’s desk in the Oval Office.
A segment on Miles’ disappearance is also highlighted in the excellent feature-length extra, ALDRICH OVER MUNICH, a nifty making-of documentary by German filmmaker Robert Fischer. Fischer offers some telling interviews with Aldrich authority/film historian Alain Silver, the director’s daughter Adell (who worked on the picture), key German personnel (A.D. Wolfgang Glattes; camera operators Gerhard Fromm, Dieter Matzka and, perhaps, most entertainingly, actor O’Loughlin whose numerous anecdotes and reminiscences are invaluable; he rightly pronounces his participation on the movie as “…the best thing I’ve ever done on film.”
There’s also an exhaustive discussion on the intricate model work (the silos), set design and art direction and use of split screens – all appended by sketch and script pages.
If you budget your Blu-Ray and DVD purchases (and these days, who doesn’t?), you cannot afford to omit TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING from your list. In the words of the classic movie promoters: It’s the One You’ve Been Waiting For. Believe me, it will light up your f**king sky!
TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING. Color. Letterboxed [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono audio [DTS-HD MA]. UPC# 887090029209; CAT# OF292.
Olive Films/Bavaria Media GGHG. SRP. $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC # 880790029100; CAT# OF291. SRP: $24.95.