There’s a sense I get from a lot of late-1970s American films that following the hope of the early 1960s, the anger of the late 1960s, and the despondency of the early 1970s, a lot of people felt that they had one last chance to truly reclaim the spirit of America, which was arguably on the precipice of being lost forever. With the bicentennial came a renewed focus on the foundations of freedom, democracy, and optimism on which the United States was founded, a realization of how far it had fallen from that promise, and how fast that fall seemed to have happened. We can look back now and see that in many ways they were right. A globalized economy pushed the working class to the margins. Government became limited in its capacity to help and unimaginably powerful in its capacity to destroy. Improved legislation for civil rights failed to fully heal racism and sexism, only make it more nimble. And a certain set of films – I think of Network, Black Sunday, All the President’s Men, and Nashville – urgently tried to warn us of what was taking place. Twilight’s Last Gleaming may be the most outlandish of them (well…that or Black Sunday), but it is also the most passionate. It is a proudly patriotic film cut through with deep, deep cynicism about how far from patriotic the country had become.
Burt Lancaster stars as Lawrence Dell, a disgraced Air Force General who recently escaped from a military prison with the aim to gain control of a nuclear launch site and threaten to launch unless the U.S. government reveals the true reasons we went to war in Vietnam. This is peak 1977, baby. He has a couple fellow escapees (Burt Young and Paul Winfield) along to help, and a formidable foe in form of his old friend General Martin MacKenzie (Richard Widmark) working to stop him. Joseph Cotten plays the Secretary of State, Melvyn Douglas the Secretary of Defense, and Charles Durning’s the President. All-star, all the way.
Director Robert Aldrich methodically lays out how one might go about taking over a heavily-guarded government facility, with all the assault, kidnapping, and espionage work that comes with it. In truly old-fashioned way, Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch’s screenplay (adapted from Walter Wager’s novel) withholds even Dell’s basic motivation, and certainly the mystery he seeks to uncover, until well into the film, trusting that they can hold out interest just in watching this tense scenario play out. They are far from wrong. Lancaster’s pure conviction at all times is thrilling enough in its own right – add to that the suspense of checkpoints to be cleared, guys with guns to be detained, vaults to be opened, and lines of communication to be cut, all to Jerry Goldsmith’s thundering score…you’ve got yourself quite a picture.
As the showdown between Dell, MacKenzie, and President Stevens escalates, so too do Aldrich’s filmmaking techniques. By this point, split-screen effects were unusual, but not entirely unheard of. De Palma’s Sisters made expert use of it to heighten tension, while Norman Jewison kind of went crazy with it in a visual symphony for The Thomas Crown Affair. Aldrich uses it here in a way that sort of merges the two. He’s far less elegant with it than De Palma, but certainly more purposeful than Jewison – we’re often meant to take in what’s happening in each frame, and try to hold them together as competing ideas. But they were either a little under-planned or deliberately overstuffed, as the dialogue often competes for space and the actions in one don’t always have direct relation to what happens in another. By the time he starts stacking four or five frames in at once, it can be a lot to handle, but I allow for the possibility of deliberate choice because all this confusion and uncertainty goes a long way to heighten tension. It emphasizes how unwieldy such a situation would be, how many moving pieces are at play, and how easy it can be to lose track of the one that will come back to bite you.
It would be a shame to spoil the revelation about Vietnam, and everything it comes to unveil about the secrecy and true priorities of the government, but suffice to say that its conclusions are not flattering. Whatever their bearing in reality, Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes them seriously as a means of underlining how disinterested the government can feel in the lives of everyday people. The plot, silly as it may be, is merely a vessel for that central feeling, which it explores deftly. The conviction I mentioned earlier with Lancaster has a twofold effect, because Dell’s plan is ultimately undone by his idealism. He trusts too much in certain processes and values he holds dear, never able to quite imagine just how corrupt the government he already believes to be so in theory can be in fact. He can’t see past the individual transgression for the larger moral vacancy. When he’s faced with it, Lancaster – a committed liberal his entire life, who stood 6’2” and carried a powerful speaking voice – seems to shrivel internally. It’s the smallest moment he’ll have in a confrontational film, and he carries it beautifully.
Masters of Cinema carries Twilight’s Last Gleaming onto Blu-ray via what seems to me a studio-crafted high-definition transfer, which characteristically means it’s sharp and crisp and has decent grain, texture, and color, but isn’t overtly remarkable in any other way. Skin tones are maybe a bit on the pale side, but it’s hard to say for sure without having seen the film in theaters. It gets the job done and never distracts from the main show.
The only on-disc supplement is a very good 70-minute documentary Aldrich Over Munich: The Making of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, which does just that. The film was shot in Munich, hence the title, but the sociopolitical tenor of the story is never far from its sights.