Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) takes over a Montana missile silo in "Twilight's Last Gleaming."
The Cold War, remastered
- Article by: DAVE KEHR
- New York Times
- November 26, 2012 - 2:47 PM
Released a few weeks after Jimmy Carter's inauguration, Robert Aldrich's 1977 political thriller "Twilight's Last Gleaming" found few takers for its angry denunciation of America's Cold War policies. Vietnam was over, Watergate was behind us, and Richard Nixon was enjoying his pardon and working on his memoirs. The filmgoing public was not interested in Aldrich's acerbic agitprop, even if it was embedded within a tight, effective thriller about a disillusioned general (Burt Lancaster) who takes over a missile silo in Montana, placing nine nuclear warheads under his control.
Ominous was out, and aw-shucks sincerity was in -- a mood that "Star Wars" would capture four months later.
And yet the reputation of "Twilight's Last Gleaming" has grown over time, particularly as it became difficult to see. It was not a film suited to the videocassette era -- the split-screen effects that Aldrich develops so brilliantly barely register in low resolution -- and by the time DVDs arrived, the rights had reverted to the film's German co-producers, and a major remastering effort was required. That remastering has now been carried out by Bavaria Media (the complex optical effects involved in the split-screen sequences must have been a nightmare to restore), and now "Twilight's Last Gleaming" has emerged in a superb Blu-ray edition, distributed in the United States by Olive Films, that does justice to Aldrich's formal design. (The disc includes Robert Fischer's fine 66-minute documentary about the film's re-creation of America on a German soundstage, "Aldrich Over Munich.")
Aldrich was no stranger to weapons of mass destruction, having configured his 1955 Mickey Spillane adaptation, "Kiss Me Deadly," a covert critique of the Cold War mentality, into an anti-heroic quest in which the unholy grail turned out to be a thermonuclear device tucked in a handy leather case. (A similar case, containing a similar device, reappears in "Twilight.") As he had in the earlier film, Aldrich had taken an apolitical thriller (in this case, a novel by Walter Wager titled "Viper Three") and recharged its ideological implications.
In the book the Lancaster character, Lawrence Dell, is a cashiered general out for money and revenge; the screenplay for "Twilight," written by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch under Aldrich's close supervision, turned the figure into a moral crusader: a senior officer (and survivor of a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp) who believes he has uncovered the hideous truth behind America's seemingly suicidal military policy in Southeast Asia, and is determined to present it to the world, even if it means using nuclear blackmail to force the hand of the president (Charles Durning).
It matters little if that truth is neither entirely shocking nor entirely convincing. Its real significance is the messianic fervor it inspires in Dell, an exalted state that Lancaster is particularly well equipped to portray. "Twilight's Last Gleaming" was his fourth film with Aldrich, in an association that dated back to the beginning of Aldrich's career, with the 1954 films "Apache" and "Vera Cruz." The two were compatible politically as well as professionally. Five years earlier they'd collaborated on the allegorical antiwar western "Ulzana's Raid," perhaps the most potent film of that fleeting subgenre.
Lancaster's naturally aristocratic bearing, his clenched, masochistic sense of self-discipline and the strange sense of emotional isolation that seemed always to accompany him come together to make Dell a figure of classically tragic proportions. Locked in the missile silo with his three confederates (Paul Winfield, Burt Young and William Smith), Dell becomes the pivotal figure in a three-way standoff, his unassailable integrity played against a politically savvy, deal-making president (in some ways Durning's performance seems to anticipate Bill Clinton) and the coldly pragmatic career officer (Richard Widmark) who has been assigned to eliminate Dell by force.
With the action compressed into the course of a single day, Aldrich plays the three characters against one another, although each is confined to his own restricted space: Lancaster in the silo, Durning in the Oval Office and Widmark in a command trailer outside the base. Split-screen editing had become something of a cliche in the 1970s, thanks to its overuse in films like "The Thomas Crown Affair," but Aldrich here seems to reinvent the technique. Instead of using the multiple images to open up the drama, Aldrich employs the technique to bring the three characters, and the lines of action they carry, into a single dramatic space, giving the wide-ranging action the cramped intensity of a chamber piece.
In the end, "Twilight's Last Gleaming" is the opposite of a message movie. The film climaxes on a note of shock, futility and blank despair, that Dell, to borrow the title of a 1970 Aldrich film, is "too late the hero," that the course of history can't be altered. Aldrich would make three more films after "Twilight," all of them with their pleasures but none with quite the same degree of personal commitment. Though he could not have known it at the time, the film was to be his last gleaming, as well, the final great work of a great American filmmaker. (Olive Films, Blu-ray $29.95, DVD $24.95, rated R.)
'The Iron Petticoat'
Coincidentally, another rare film with a Cold War connection has surfaced on home video. "The Iron Petticoat," a 1956 British comedy starring Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn, has been liberated from the tangle of confused rights that kept it out of sight for decades and is now available on American DVD and Blu-ray through Turner Classic Movie's in-house Vault Collection label.
It's the full 94-minute British version, as opposed to the 83-minute cut that Hope supervised for its original U.S. release (and which provoked screenwriter Ben Hecht to demand that his name be removed from the credits).
Even at its full length the film is more of a historical curiosity than a laugh riot. Said to have been originally conceived as a vehicle for Hepburn and Cary Grant, the film is a "Ninotchka"-like tale of an icy Communist ideologue (Hepburn as a pioneering Soviet pilot) who is won over to capitalism when her romance with an American (Hope, as a U.S. Air Force pilot stationed in Germany) awakens her dormant femininity.
The sparks don't exactly fly between Hepburn and Hope, who seem like members of two different, highly incompatible species. The film is another of Hepburn's midcareer attempts to recant the flinty feminism that had made her box office poison in the 1930s, and the spectacle of her moral capitulation before a black lace undergarment displayed in a London store window is not an inspiring one. (TCM Vault Collection, Blu-ray/DVD combo $29.99, not rated.)
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