Paul Winfield, Burt Lancaster
Paul Winfield, Burt Lancaster

If anyone doubts that good movies often represent a triumph of execution over content, let him go see Twilight's Last Gleaming. At the scenario level this atomic-age thriller is more than a little muddled, and the plot focus is bewilderingly soft. Yet in the beefy hands of Robert Aldrich the picture not only attains a narrative ferocity sufficient to leave an audience feeling run over by a kinesthetic express train, but also succeeds in tapping a moral and emotional force its screenplay pretty well botches.

The situation is essentially simple, although complicated enough in personnel and logistics to warrant more-than-average running time. On a Sunday morning in 1981, a small band of desperate characters infiltrates a missile silo in the wilds of Montana and threatens to launch its nine programmed "birds," thereby setting off World War III and just possibly bringing about the end of civilization.

They are escaped cons. Three (Paul Winfield, Burt Young, William Smith) are interested only in freedom and a multimillion-dollar ransom. The fourth, their leader (Burt Lancaster), is an ex–Air Force general (hence his selection of and familiarity with their target); railroaded into the pen because he had become bothersomely radicalized, he wants to force the government into some damning revelations about its foreign policy since the advent of nuclear warfare in 1945. His favorite clause in the ransom demands involves taking the President as hostage and having him broadcast the exposé to the world.

And what is the murky government secret that Lancaster wants brought to light? It is that, given the (shall we say) unfeasibility of global nuclear combat as a means of resolving international disputes, and given the U.S.'s need to maintain credibility with "the Russians" as a fighting power, the National Security Council has opted to wage all sorts of "limited" wars—like ferinstance Vietnam—and to keep waging them, throwing away lives, money, and materiel, even when there is no real objective and no hope of victory.

To the relatively new and personally guiltless President (Charles Durning), this comes as a devastating revelation. His advisers—Secretaries of Defense (Melvyn Douglas) and State (Joseph Cotten), the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all privy to the original policymaking—feel it would have a likewise devastating effect on the American public of 1981.

Meanwhile, a goodly portion of the American public in 1977 is likely to wonder how the President avoided figuring all this out for himself over the past ten or twenty years. By rights, the movie ought to buckle at that point and collapse, like a single-span bridge joined in the middle with duct-tape. But its narrative architecture finally holds up because it is morally buttressed on other levels. It is not incumbent on the viewer to know that this movie set in the United States and predicated on the threat of global catastrophe was entirely filmed in West Germany; but knowing that supplies an added nudge at appreciating what Aldrich is doing here. Like any other good movie, Twilight's Last Gleaming takes place primarily in imaginative space. Its world has been effectively reduced to several sets: an approximation of the Oval Office (periodically preceded onscreen by travelogue-y, off-color stock shots of the White House exterior), the concrete-bounded cell that is the control room of Silo III, the blank plain surrounding the silo (more often than not viewed by means of black-and-white TV monitors in the control room), the back of a truck from which gung-ho militarist Richard Widmark coordinates the operation against his time-honored colleague and enemy Lancaster.

Aldrich further abstracts and redistributes the effective dramatic zones of his world by framing his people in visual boxes—solo or in two-shots, even when theoretically surrounded by a roomful of colleagues. A good deal of the time, the screen is sectored into panels on which we watch various scales of activity occurring within the same location or at discrete points a continent apart. Some reviewers have complained that this device detracts from rather than adding to the suspense. To an extent, split-screening is purely functional, a means of piling on enough information that a five-hour film can be told in half that time.

But most importantly, this dangerously mechanical tactic unexpectedly reinforces the intense humanism that ultimately proves to be the film's saving—indeed, emotionally overpowering—grace. The more coldly, relentlessly, indomitably systematic the world becomes, the more courageous and invaluable appear the individual gestures—down to the most politically irrelevant reaction shot—of both good guys and bad.

Robert Aldrich people are never pretty people. Heavy-featured and heavy-bodied, they lean off the screen at us like toppling steers. At least as far back as Ralph Meeker's Mike Hammer in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), the director has taken almost palpable delight in confronting us with characters—and often performers—who flout all the conventional standards of beauty, attractiveness, sometimes even likability, and in effect saying, "These people are no better than you are, but then maybe you're no better than they are, which is just as well to recognize right now because they could be the last best hope of Western civilization." (It is not really beside the point to observe that Aldrich, who looks as if he played football forty years ago, and did, and is carelessly identified as a maker of gut-busters like The Dirty Dozen, reveals himself in interviews as one of the most articulate, ironical, independent- and strong-minded of filmmakers here or abroad.)

Charles Durning's President almost seems to embody Aldrich himself. Looking like a fugitive from the Chicago stockyards (reportedly based in part on the late Mayor Richard Daley), a professional politico who handles four-letter words with the casual authority bred of familiarity, preferring to spend his Sundays watching football on the tube, he seems an unlikely keeper of idealist faith. Yet so thoroughly does Durning invest the man with a deep, unselfrighteous sense of personal integrity that what we encounter on the screen overrides those objections-in-the-abstract to the character and the political/moral dilemma imperfectly posed in the script. When he is placed in personal jeopardy at the climax, one cares enormously.

The rest of the cast are similarly substantial. Aldrich is a past master at sticking it to the Establishment, and he often resorts to near-cartoonish caricature ("Mr. Aldrich has never been accused, even in a moment of anger, of understating anything," Mr. Aldrich himself notes in a recent interview). But his biggest roles are always shrewdly cast and played to the hilt. Lancaster's doomsday activist is as crazy as he is dedicated, and under the direction of the man with whom he made Apache, Vera Cruz, and the brilliant Ulzana's Raid, the actor balances the two modes with rare lack of ostentation ("There are no midgets in the United States Air Force," he deadpans in bewildered exasperation when one of his cohorts makes a joke about undersized snipers). Widmark's defender of the corrupt status quo is no stock movie fascist but a compleat professional to whom it has never occurred to consider an alternative mode and code of conduct. And in Winfield and Young, Lancaster is backed by two of the most immediately engaging character players at work in the current cinema.

I risked shocking a colleague a few weeks ago when I confessed that, much as I was looking forward to the new Robert Altman picture, the new Robert Aldrich movie excited my anticipation even more. I didn't discount at the time that the Altman was likely to prove the richer, more original film, and indeed it has. But Twilight's Last Gleaming, warts and all, is infinitely more intelligent, responsible, and provocative than the by-the-numbers shrug-off reviews it has met with. And amid a rash of super-hyped, electrodes-in-place audience zappers like Black Sunday, it looks more valuable than ever as a morally informed work by a morally concerned artist.

The Weekly, May 18, 1977

Copyright © 1977 by Richard T. Jameson