The Film: 5/5
The last truly great film from director Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen), Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a bleak white knuckle thriller constructed out of corrosive political drama and wire-taut tension. A box office flop when it was first released in early 1977, Aldrich’s powerful exercise in crafting suspense and character is ripe for reevaluation in an age where the political and social climates are on the verge of bursting into flame.
Aldrich spent his career gravitating between star-driven smash hits and stranger personal projects that only someone with a decent track record could get away with making. When Twilight, an adaptation of the 1971 Walter Wager novel Viper Three, came to his attention, it was a standard action-thriller lacking in the substantial thematic elements that films of the 1970’s were bringing to audiences virtually on a weekly basis. Aldrich took the script by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch and refashioned it into a dialogue-heavy drama that proceeded at a leisurely pace but offered up a four-course buffet of scenery chewing opportunities for a primarily male cast loaded down with some of the old Hollywood’s finest acting talents and a few choice up-and-comers talented enough to hold their own and occasionally dominate the legends.
Burt Lancaster toplines this amazing cast as Lawrence Dell, a disgraced former Air Force colonel sent to prison on trumped-up murder charges for defying his superiors who teams up with fellow prisoners Powell (Paul Winfield) and Garvas (Burt Young) to break out of the slammer with a dastardly scheme on his mind. The trio (initially a quartet until Dell is forced to violently dispose of a psychotic fourth wheel played by Conan the Barbarian’s William Smith) infiltrate a Montana nuclear missile silo and take complete control of its nine ICBMs with the intention of launching each one at the Soviet Union unless the U.S. government complies with their demands. Powell and Garvas think they’re in for a multi-million dollar payday, but Dell has another special request he expects President David Stevens (Charles Durning) to honor without question.
Twilight’s Last Gleaming could have been a bigger hit than it ultimately was, but it was released at a time when audiences were rejecting these eerily relevant political conspiracy thrillers in favor of the opulent widescreen fantasies of Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman. Realism was out, escapism was in. Aldrich’s passion project might have been a little late to a party that had already crowned The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor as best and second-best in show, but the message it delivered was no less chilling the more you thought about it, and the thrills no less effective. The “Operation Gold” sequence, in particular, is one of the most riveting hold-your-breath-and-don’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-the-screen moments in the history of cinema, on par with the rope bridge crossing in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and the “call it, ‘friendo’” scene from No Country for Old Men. It’s certainly among the greatest action set-pieces Aldrich ever brought to the screen, and this is the guy who turned a commando raid on a Nazi chalet into one of the classic silver screen third acts.
The film takes place primarily on two sets, with each one commanded by a separate group of performers as if we were watching a pair of interconnected stage plays. First, we have the action happening in the missile silo control room with Dell and his cohorts fighting back the necessity to prove how far they’re willing to go to see their demands met. Lancaster is battered righteous perfection as the disillusioned patriot simply wanting the system he once believed in to take responsibility for their misdeeds instead of carefully sweeping their crimes against humanity under the carpet and leaving the scars that war inflicts on a nation’s soul to never properly heal. It ironically falls to Winfield’s character – the face of every downtrodden black man torn away from his family and friends to go fight a rich white man’s war – to prevent this once-proud military officer from crossing over into madness and devastation. Both men are positively electrifying in their respective roles.
Then there’s the conflict that plays out inside the Oval Office with Durning’s competent statesman forced to match wits with members of his own cabinet who possess secrets about this great nation of ours he never even begun to consider. The late Durning gives one of his finest dramatic performances in the service of a meaty character arc that is spectacularly executed inside a single room, with terrific assists from such hallowed silver screen icons and character acting legends as Joseph Cotton (The Third Man) as the businessman-like Secretary of State, Melvyn Douglas (Being There) as Stevens’ fatherly Secretary of Defense, and Blacula himself, William Marshall, as the Attorney General. The sharp dialogue and excellent support given by these men only serve to enhance Durning’s performance and make his slow-boiling fury at the horrors revealed to him even more credible when he finally blows up during one of the film’s most compelling dramatic scenes.
Gerald S. O’Loughlin (In Cold Blood) is one of the true MVPs of the supporting cast as a brigadier general and the president’s closest confidante who must act as the leader of the free world’s conscience during his greatest moment of personal strife. Solid work is also provided by the always dependable and watchable Richard Widmark, isolated from the rest of the main players while remaining a critical figure in the ongoing crisis, as well as Aldrich veteran Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Roscoe Lee Browne (Logan’s Run), and Morgan Paull (Blade Runner). Eagle-eyed fans of the Star Wars cinematic saga will be excited to single out cameo appearances from Garrick Hagon, William Hootkins, Shane Rimmer, and John Ratzenberger. In a development that should surprise no one, Jerry Goldsmith contributed a score that is equally melodic and menacing and always knows exactly when to apply the tension and ease off both the characters and the audience. Sharp and pristine widescreen cinematography is supplied by Robert B. Hauser (Soldier Blue, Willard), and Aldrich, along with an editing team that includes frequent collaborators Michael Luciano (The Flight of the Phoenix) and Maury Winetrobe (The Frisco Kid), heightens the onscreen suspense and surprise with a terrific use of the split screen technique.
MIA on home video since the days of VHS, in the process becoming the sort of cinematic obscurity you’d be lucky to catch a viewing of on your local Fox affiliate station some languid late night, Twilight made its premiere on Blu-ray in 2012 thanks to Olive Films. Bavaria Media’s stunning HD restoration, sourced from the original camera negative, is about as good as the film will ever look on home video, but it’s a quiet revelation that Eureka appears to have retained for their Region B Blu-ray release. Framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio and presented in full 1080p resolution, the picture quality is simply superb and boasts sharpened details, authentic skin tones, and a corrected color scheme that is both vivid and natural. Grain has been reduced to a very fine layer that never waivers when the action shifts from interiors to exteriors and scenes employ the split screen technique. Even to the naked eye I don’t think it’s possible to detect a single remaining trace of permanent print damage; grit, dirt, and every other conceivable sort have been artistically stripped clean away. It doesn’t get any better than this.
The Olive Blu-ray came with a lossless English DTS-HD Master Audio mono track, but Eureka has supplied their transfer with a much spacious and clean-sounding uncompressed PCM 2.0 track that spreads the activity across both channels well without creating overlap or distortion and necessitating manual volume control. The mix won’t give your home theater a workout since the film relies heavily on dialogue scenes, but the Goldsmith score is given a solid presentation and the action scenes are lively with uncluttered sound effects integration (gunshots, helicopters, etc.). English subtitles have also been included.
There is only one notable supplement on Eureka’s release, and it’s the same one that first appeared on the Olive Blu-ray: “Aldrich Over Munich: The Making of Twilight’s Last Gleaming” (69 minutes), an interesting retrospective documentary from Fiction Factory directed by Robert Fischer that assembles some of the surviving principal players from the production along with Aldrich’s daughter Adell and his biographer Alain Silver to chart the project’s history. Starting with the director’s early years as an assistant director and his break with the right-leaning political loyalties of his wealthy family, the documentary (which is presented in high-definition) also goes into the process of adapting the Wager novel into a viable script, assembling the cast, principal photography at the Bavaria Studios, and more. Given that most of the film’s crucial creative players have passed on, this is about as close as fans of Twilight will ever get to a thorough contemporary document of how it came to exist.
The Eureka edition also comes with a bonus DVD copy and a collector’s booklet featuring a new essay about the film written by Neil Sinyard and excerpts from an interview with Aldrich published in the March/April 1977 issue of Film Comment that pertains to the making of Twilight’s Last Gleaming. That gives this set a slight edge over the Olive Blu-ray as the definitive release of this classic film on the market.
Eureka Entertainment’s new Region B Blu-ray release of the classic doomsday thriller Twilight’s Last Gleaming (part of their stellar Masters of Cinema line) is the edition to own with its immaculate high-definition transfer and excellent retrospective documentary. The film itself is a marvelous political suspense piece enriched by great ensemble acting, focused storytelling, and split-screen editing that puts the audience in the thick of some nail-biting action sequences. One of Robert Aldrich’s finest films, I could not recommend this long-neglected classic more.