Combustible Celluloid
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With: Burt Lancaster, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Richard Widmark, Roscoe Lee Browne, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Gerald S. O'Loughlin, Charles Aidman, Leif Erickson, Charles McGraw, Morgan Paull, William Smith, John Ratzenberger
Written by: Ronald M. Cohen, Edward Huebsch, based on a novel by Walter Wager
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 144
Date: 02/09/1977

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Missile Demand

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Robert Aldrich's Twilight's Last Gleaming is one of his angrier, tenser films, and one that has been difficult to see for several decades. Now, thanks to Olive Films, Blu-ray fans can devour it in its full glory.

Burt Lancaster stars, in his fourth and final film with Aldrich, as a bitter former general Lawrence Dell. It's 1981 (four years in the future), and Dell has discovered the brutal truth about Vietnam and the U.S. military, and comes up with a sinister plan. Accompanied by two escaped convicts (Paul Winfield and Burt Young), he breaks into a missile silo and threatens to fire nine missiles unless the President (Charles Durning) goes on television and explains to the American public just what the war was really all about.

Aldrich keeps up his tirade for two hours and twenty-four minutes, but it's astoundingly well-paced and suspenseful the entire time. He spends a good deal of screen time at the White House with the president's cabinet, including Joseph Cotten as the Secretary of State, and double Oscar-winner Melvyn Douglas. Another large chunk of time takes place in the silo, with a determined, resolute Lancaster butting heads with the streetwise Winfield and Young, and dealing with hostages, while monitoring the outside world through security cameras. Thirdly, Richard Widmark plays a very cynical general who seems willing to do just about anything to restore the balance of power.

Cutting back and forth, Aldrich cannily employs split-screens (both horizontal and vertical, and sometimes four images) for some of the tenser moments, orchestrating them so that the viewer must choose where to look; it's a split-second decision, and it heightens the sense of anxiety the viewer feels. The security cameras add another dimension of paranoia, as the viewers sit helplessly in the windowless silo, totally dependent on what the cameras can -- and can't -- see. At one point, the military finds a small hole in the cameras' range and arranges a sneak attack.

Overall, this is the kind of movie you'd think would be even more prevalent today -- in our very dark times -- than back in the 1970s, but it only sheds light on how we are now a nation of avoiders, preferring to bury ourselves in entertainments and electronics than to learn any potentially disturbing truths. But back in the 1970s, there was an atmosphere of daring, and directors were not only allowed, but also encouraged to try crazy new ideas. Aldrich was a veteran by 1977, and would only make three more films before his death in 1983, but he was surely one of the tougher souls working at the time. Getting to see this film today sheds a bit more light on an extraordinary career.

Olive Films' Blu-ray comes with an amazing transfer, highlighting some blotchy skin tones and textures, which only make the characters look even more frenzied. The company's discs usually don't come with any extras, but this one does: a brand-new feature-length documentary, Aldrich Over Munich, directed by Robert Fischer.

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