Twilight’s Last Gleaming

TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING didn’t reflect much luster in this 1977 thriller, one of the conspiracy sagas that were rife in the decade.  A first-rate cast carry it as best they can, but the hole-riddled script is such a stretch it borders on ridiculous, and the film marks another late-career miscalculation from maverick director Robert Aldrich.

Escaped from a military prison, several men manage to gain entry to a missile site in Montana, overpower the guards and override the security measures. They attempt to blackmail the government, threatening to launch nine ICMBs at the Soviet Union unless their demands are answered. This scheme includes having the President as a hostage. Some of the gang are common criminals, in it for the money, but the ringleader is a disgraced general (Burt Lancaster) whose motive is grander and deeper: force the government to publicly come clean about decades of foreign policy deception, chiefly the lies behind the Vietnam War. Richard Widmark plays the general assigned to handle the recapture of the facility, Melvyn Douglas is the chief brain advising the President, done by Charles Durning.

The script by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch took crime & espionage writer Walter Wager’s pulp novel “Viper Three” and tweaked it stage-left to suit the anti-authoritarian streak of the director and the political leanings of its stars. Lancaster, Widmark and Douglas were some of Hollywood’s most stalwart and respected liberals, and Burt had previously dealt deception cards in Seven Days In May (excellent) and Executive Action (fair). He’d also worked with Aldrich on the cynical westerns Apache, Vera Cruz and Ulzana’s Raid.

The despairing point it makes is bayonet sharp, but the clumsy presentation is laced with technical errors and logic gaps, let alone the central whopper that somehow the President would be so naïve as to be shocked by the revelation that the Vietnam War was one big orchestrated con job. No kiddin’.

Lancaster, Widmark and Douglas are never less than strong presences, but the best, most passionate acting in this piece comes from Durning as the honest and cornered POTUS. We just have to accept that the President might be honest, a hurdle considering the last, um, ten?  The quaint idea that anyone who gets to the Oval Office without knowing—from the time he was Class President (and/or a draft dodger)—that the military-industrial complex is in charge is pure fantasy.

Helping Lancaster’s unhinged patriot-extortionist are angry Paul Winfield and goofball Burt Young, and their pulpy characterizations (especially Young’s) are out-to-lunch, further undermining the believability factor. An excessive running time of 144 minutes also bogs it down, and the use of split-screen only helps in that without it the movie would be three and a half hours long. As in his every assignment, Jerry Goldsmith’s score lands in the plus column.

Made for $6,200,000, it grossed $12,200,000, 51st place that year, which also saw conspiracies aired through Capricorn One, Telefon and The Domino Principal.

            Gerald S. O’Laughlin, 1921-2015

Veteran worthies in support: Gerald S. O’Laughlin (very good), Richard Jaeckel, Joseph Cotten, Leif Erickson, Charles McGraw, William Marshall, Roscoe Lee Browne (a prestige walk-on), William Smith (long enough to be a badass and get summarily snuffed) and Bill Walker. Vera Miles role was left on the cutting room floor, a fate she also suffered in The Green Berets (speaking of hard-to-swallow scripts). Filmed in Germany, which provided not just a woodsy setting outside Munich, but a number of military vehicles (NATO good for something), since there’s no way the Pentagon would help out.


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