June 14, 2024

Litter Box Treasures: TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING (1977)

Starring Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Charles Durning, Paul Winfield, Burt Young, Melvyn Douglas, Joseph Cotton, Richard Jaeckel, William Marshall, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Roscoe Lee Browne. Directed by Robert Aldrich. 


Like a lot of movies I loved growing up, Twilight's Last Gleaming is one of those forgotten relics few people have ever heard of, let-alone actually seen. It’s a shame, really, because the film boasts a legendary cast and taut direction by Robert Aldrich, whose use of split-screen creates considerable tension & urgency. I’ll concede that it’s aesthetically dated, fairly grim in tone and maybe a tad too long. On the other hand, its pessimistic depiction of our government and those wielding power behind closed doors is as timely than ever.

Burt Lancaster plays disgraced (and slightly unhinged) Air Force officer Lawrence Dell, who, along with two thugs, escape from a military prison, infiltrate a missile silo and take control of its arsenal. Then Dell threatens to launch its missiles at the Soviet Union unless the powers-that-be in Washington make-public the real reason the U.S. continued to wage war in Vietnam long after it was declared unwinnable. Dell also wants a hostage - the President of the United States - to ensure his demands are met. 

The movie's premise is somewhat outrageous (I sure-as-hell hope taking over a missile complex isn't quite this easy), but it's a conspiracy theorist's wet dream, and that's part of what makes it fun. It's the kind of paranoid movie that could only have been made in the 70s, post-Watergate, when our faith in the government was at an all-time low. We start off thinking Dell is the film's villain, but by the end, it's the White House advisors surrounding the president we grow to despise (most of them would rather see their Commander-in-Chief die than reveal their secrets).

Pillow Talk II

What's kind of ironic about this one, considering our tendency to use presidents as de facto symbols of everything wrong about certain eras, is that this president (played by Charles Durning, who’s terrific) is probably the second-most sympathetic character. In the end, he actually begins to feel empathy for Dell and is painfully aware he can no longer trust those around him.

Even for a conspiracy thriller, this is dark stuff. By the final reel, the viewer is pretty certain things will not end well. This movie definitely has a sobering anti-government agenda that wasn't prevalent in the novel it’s loosely based on (Walter Wager’s Viper Three), which was totally lost on me as a kid when I first watched it on HBO. It must have been lost on a lot of people, because Twilight's Last Gleaming came-and-went in theaters back in '77, when interests turned to fluffier fare like Star Wars and Smokey and the Bandit. With Luke Skywalker saving the Rebellion from the galactic empire and Burt Reynolds hauling ass in a Trans-Am with Sally Field, who the hell wanted to be reminded of the horror that was Vietnam, to say nothing of an awful theory why the war was so painfully dragged out?

Again, I was oblivious of any agenda back then. I simply loved the scenario in which the world could end. The threat of nuclear annihilation was one of the more realistic doomsday scenarios scaring the shit out of people in the 70s, so Twilight’s Last Gleaming was especially fascinating. But even four decades later, the film still carries a strong, relevant message: Do NOT always trust the people we’ve entrusted.

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