TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING: No Truth. No Justice. It’s the American Way.

The last truly great film from director Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly, The Dirty Dozen), Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a bleak white knuckle thriller constructed out of corrosive political drama and wire-taut tension. A box office flop when it was first released in early 1977, Aldrich’s powerful exercise in crafting suspense and character is ripe for reevaluation in an age where the political and social climates are on the verge of bursting into flame.

Aldrich spent his career gravitating between star-driven smash hits and stranger personal projects that only someone with a decent track record could get away with making. When Twilight, an adaptation of the 1971 Walter Wager novel Viper Three, came to his attention, it was a standard action-thriller lacking in the substantial thematic elements that films of the 1970’s were bringing to audiences virtually on a weekly basis. Aldrich took the script by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch and refashioned it into a dialogue-heavy drama that proceeded at a leisurely pace but offered up a four-course buffet of scenery chewing opportunities for a primarily male cast loaded down with some of the old Hollywood’s finest acting talents and a few choice up-and-comers talented enough to hold their own and occasionally dominate the legends.

Burt Lancaster toplines this amazing cast as Lawrence Dell, a disgraced former Air Force colonel sent to prison on trumped-up murder charges for defying his superiors who teams up with fellow prisoners Powell (Paul Winfield) and Garvas (Burt Young) to break out of the slammer with a dastardly scheme on his mind. The trio (initially a quartet until Dell is forced to violently dispose of a psychotic fourth wheel played by Conan the Barbarian’s William Smith) infiltrate a Montana nuclear missile silo and take complete control of its nine ICBMs with the intention of launching each one at the Soviet Union unless the U.S. government complies with their demands. Powell and Garvas think they’re in for a multi-million dollar payday, but Dell has another special request he expects President David Stevens (Charles Durning) to honor without question.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming could have been a bigger hit than it ultimately was, but it was released at a time when audiences were rejecting these eerily relevant political conspiracy thrillers in favor of the opulent widescreen fantasies of Jaws, Star Wars, and Superman. Realism was out, escapism was in. Aldrich’s passion project might have been a little late to a party that had already crowned The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor as best and second-best in show, but the message it delivered was no less chilling the more you thought about it, and the thrills no less effective. The “Operation Gold” sequence, in particular, is one of the most riveting hold-your-breath-and-don’t-take-your-eyes-off-of-the-screen moments in the history of cinema, on par with the rope bridge crossing in William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and the “call it, ‘friendo’” scene from No Country for Old Men. It’s certainly among the greatest action set-pieces Aldrich ever brought to the screen, and this is the guy who turned a commando raid on a Nazi chalet into one of the classic silver screen third acts.

The film takes place primarily on two sets, with each one commanded by a separate group of performers as if we were watching a pair of interconnected stage plays. First, we have the action happening in the missile silo control room with Dell and his cohorts fighting back the necessity to prove how far they’re willing to go to see their demands met. Lancaster is battered righteous perfection as the disillusioned patriot simply wanting the system he once believed in to take responsibility for their misdeeds instead of carefully sweeping their crimes against humanity under the carpet and leaving the scars that war inflicts on a nation’s soul to never properly heal. It ironically falls to Winfield’s character – the face of every downtrodden black man torn away from his family and friends to go fight a rich white man’s war – to prevent this once-proud military officer from crossing over into madness and devastation. Both men are positively electrifying in their respective roles.

Then there’s the conflict that plays out inside the Oval Office with Durning’s competent statesman forced to match wits with members of his own cabinet who possess secrets about this great nation of ours he never even begun to consider. The late Durning gives one of his finest dramatic performances in the service of a meaty character arc that is spectacularly executed inside a single room, with terrific assists from such hallowed silver screen icons and character acting legends as Joseph Cotton (The Third Man) as the businessman-like Secretary of State, Melvyn Douglas (Being There) as Stevens’ fatherly Secretary of Defense, and Blacula himself, William Marshall, as the Attorney General. The sharp dialogue and excellent support given by these men only serve to enhance Durning’s performance and make his slow-boiling fury at the horrors revealed to him even more credible when he finally blows up during one of the film’s most compelling dramatic scenes.

Gerald S. O’Loughlin (In Cold Blood) is one of the true MVPs of the supporting cast as a brigadier general and the president’s closest confidante who must act as the leader of the free world’s conscience during his greatest moment of personal strife. Solid work is also provided by the always dependable and watchable Richard Widmark, isolated from the rest of the main players while remaining a critical figure in the ongoing crisis, as well as Aldrich veteran Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen), Roscoe Lee Browne (Logan’s Run), and Morgan Paull (Blade Runner). Eagle-eyed fans of the Star Wars cinematic saga will be excited to single out cameo appearances from Garrick Hagon, William Hootkins, Shane Rimmer, and John Ratzenberger. In a development that should surprise no one, Jerry Goldsmith contributed a score that is equally melodic and menacing and always knows exactly when to apply the tension and ease off both the characters and the audience. Sharp and pristine widescreen cinematography is supplied by Robert B. Hauser (Soldier Blue, Willard), and Aldrich, along with an editing team that includes frequent collaborators Michael Luciano (The Flight of the Phoenix) and Maury Winetrobe (The Frisco Kid), heightens the onscreen suspense and surprise with a terrific use of the split screen technique.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a marvelous political suspense piece enriched by great ensemble acting, focused storytelling, and split-screen editing that puts the audience in the thick of some nail-biting action sequences. One of Robert Aldrich’s finest films, I could not recommend this long-neglected classic more.

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