Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

thieves11

Not The Final Installment In That Teen Vampire Series

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

1977 was a year of some high profile bombs which later achieved some cult status such as Cross of Iron, Sorcerer and Twilight’s Last Gleaming. This partially came about from the competition from a certain film called Star Wars which offered a more optimistic and hopeful cinematic experience. As someone who has mixed feeling on New Hollywood, these movies don’t deserve to be ignored the way they are and are some of the best hidden gems of the 1970’s. Likewise the trashy, conspiracy theory concept of Twilight’s Last Gleaming would be the ire of many high brow critics but it’s the high concept which makes Twilight’s Last Gleaming irresistible and helps the viewer to look past the implausibility of the premise. This is a film which trades it’s logic for emotion and is aware of its own implausibility (“How in the hell does some joker walk into a top secret installation and get control of the most sophisticated weapons system in the world?”). As a layman it feels believable within the context of the movie but it’s always fun to ask, could it happen in real life?

Twilight’s Last Gleaming features an ironic use of ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ during the opening and closing credits; it’s not exactly a happy movie. Oddly however Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds like something from an action/adventure blockbuster and is even John Williams like at time. The action takes place over a single day in what can be described as Dog Day Afternoon like scenario in a missile silo for a film which you could mistaken as being based on a stage play with its handful of sets and lengthy scenes. On my first viewing I wasn’t convinced the running time was justified but watching it again I was hooked. Twilight’s Last Gleaming takes is set in the future year of November 16th, 1981 although it’s not stated why it’s set on this particular date.

Burt Lancaster was still getting some great roles into the 1970’s. He still had his mojo and now with a beat up face to boot. As one of the character’s in the film puts it, “with that rhetoric he could be elected governor in ten states”. Lancaster’s role of General Lawrence Dell draws parallels to his role of General Scott in the political thriller Seven Days In May; a megalomaniac going to extremes in order to fulfil his agenda despite the risks to the United States and the world as a whole. He may be trying to provide a catharsis to the pain and anger of Vietnam veterans but at what cost? Lancaster and co star Paul Winfred have an enjoyable chemistry between them and provide comic relief with their back and forth. It’s interesting seeing Lancaster sparring off with actors much younger than him as well as dropping some F-bombs. On top of that there is something surreal about watching Burt Lancaster drinking a can of Coca-Cola. Product placements for Coca-Cola appear at several points throughout the film with Coke vending machines in clear sight; I guess they have to answer to The Coca-Cola Company.

Twilight’s Last Gleaming consists of veteran actors talking some serious stuff. The discussions in the Oval Office scene are alot to take in on one viewing (“Ralph! Are you comparing Vietnam to Hitler?!” – It always goes back to Hitler). The movie is full of entertaining one liners – “It’s like Star Trek all over again”, “Come on this isn’t Disneyland” and my favourite, “There are no midgets in the United States Air Force”.  The oldest among this cast is Melvyn Douglas, the prime example of an actor who got better with age as clearly evident here; full of powerful subdue comments and monologues (“The beginning of the end of mankind, in graphic black and white”).

The film’s extensive use of split screen works remarkable well and does not feel like a gimmick creating a unique viewing experience; the split screen here is clearly not an afterthought. The entire sequence in which missiles are about to be launched is presented entirely in split screen with events being monitored in three different locations in order to heighten the tension. The scene itself is one scary sequence with the pandemonium and the sight of the missiles rising (the model of the silo exterior is shown on screen just briefly enough not to notice they are models). The President himself describes it best – “The opening of the doors of hell”.

The President in Twilight’s Last Gleaming played by Charles Durning is not an idealistic representation of a president nor is he massively charming and ultimately a bit drab. However we do get to see his human side during a scene in which he talks to his General alone and admits to being scared out of his mind. At the beginning of the film there is a scene in which the President has a conversation with a character played by Roscoe Lee Brown. It doesn’t have purpose in the plot but does set the tone of the White House scenes and foreshadows the rest of the movie (“If I grant Zabat sanctuary, I give approval to every dissident with a cause and a gun”).

The ending of Twilight’s Last Gleaming all comes down to the question of whether or not society can deal with the truth? With widespread distrust in the government starting with the assassination of JFK and not getting any better with the Watergate scandal, would the President’s cabinet reveal the movie’s purported truth on the Vietnam War to the American public like he ordered before being shot down in an attempt to take down the two men holding him hostage. However was his death even an accident or did they intend to let him be shot down in order to keep the truth hidden; it does seem odd that no medical aid is given to him after being shot. The ending is left ambiguous and the viewer is left to think about it.

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The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Plane Crazy

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

James Stewart’s career in the 1960’s was characterised by below average westerns, a contrast to his amazing run of diverse and ambitious films in the 50’s. The Flight of the Phoenix and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are the two films which broke this mould.

I’m not an aviation expert so I can only speak as a layman but the method in which the men escape from the desert by building a new plane out of the remains of their downed plane doesn’t feel implausible, even if the man who spearheads the project designs toy planes for a living. After Frank Towns (James Stewart) and Lew Moran (Richard Attenborough) learn that Heinrich Dorfmann does not actually design real planes he makes a convincing argument that the principals of model plane design are the same and in many aspects of models require much more exacting designs as there is no pilot to fly them.

Hardy Kruger is the big show stealer here as the reserved loner Heinrich Dorfmann. He doesn’t conform to the rest of the group often physically separated from them nor does he appear to care what they think of him. He is someone who deals in cold, hard logic and shows little emotion throughout most of the film until he finally warms up towards the end. The intense dislike Towns has for Dorfmann is never explained. Ok it is established Dorfmann gets on Towns’ nerves but the contempt he has for him is clearly something more than that; in fact on my first viewing of The Flight of the Phoenix I found myself puzzled as to why he was taking such a dislike to him. Although it’s never stated the dislike could be due to post war bigotry. Although Dorfmann claims to have not been involved in the war he does hold some Nazi like characteristics such as his lack of compassion for those unnecessary or hindering the survival of the greater good (the greater good!), not to mention the blonde hair and blue eyes wouldn’t help Towns’ perception of him.

It’s no secret that James Stewart was an aviation enthusiast, thus no surprise this role would have appealed to him. As a pilot during the war he bring an extra degree of levity to the role, however this is no nice guy Stewart. Frank Towns is a man with a violent temper – nor did Stewart ever appear in a movie with a face so beat up (kudos to the makeup department for all those nasty looking side effects on the character’s faces.). The shot in which he threatens to kill the unknown person stealing water if they do it again as his face goes in and out of the light more than once is intimidating stuff. Likewise The Flight of the Phoenix is piloted by a superb international cast with characters whom have different levels of adjustment to surviving the wilderness. It’s a surprise seeing Dan Duryea playing a softie as Standish the account; a total contrast to his other roles as a no good weasel.

“The little men with the slide rules and computers are going to inherit the Earth.”

The Frisco Kid (1979)

Hanukkah Solo

Its movies like The Frisco Kid which are right up my alley – a totally bizarre, odd ball comedy. A movie which feels like a classic Hollywood western but about a man who is in a totally alien world. The odd pairing of actors Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford works like a charm. Just like how you wouldn’t expect these actors to team up, you wouldn’t expect a rabbi and a Wild West cowboy to be a duo. There’s such pleasure watching the two interact and develop their odd, endearing bromance; Tommy (Ford) has no reason to stay with Avram (Wilder) other than he’s formed a liking to him. Harrison Ford goes from space cowboy in Star Wars to actual cowboy in The Frisco Kid, showing he really had a knack for playing ruffians. However his character is not just a Han Solo redux. Unlike Solo he’s not just out for himself but wants to give a helping hand to underdogs.

The Frisco Kid showcases the absurdity of faith, but also celebrates it at the same time. Rabbi Avram Belinski follows his faith to a tee (despite being ranked almost last among his peers strangely enough). He would put his life and the lives of others on the line for the Torrah or in order to obey the Sabbath. Yet Tommy defends and even lauds Avram’s actions as a man dedicated to his faith, even if he put his life in danger for religious reasons.

Likewise the Native Americans they encounter along their travels have a failure to understand the God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In one dialogue exchange, the Indian chief is perplexed that this God can make rain yet he doesn’t because as Avram puts it, “that’s not his department”. Yet the chief asks if he wanted to he could, and Avram replies yes. Yet Avram contradicts this statement later in their discussion when he proclaims God can do anything; the chief responds with “then why can’t he make rain?” and Avram loudly states “because he doesn’t make rain!”. However on top of this Avram tells the chief that there is only one God and that he’s your God too. Take that as a bit of falsifying another’s faith.

However The Frisco Kid is a movie which showcases peace and unity between cultures. Along his travels Avram encounters whites, blacks, Native Americans, Christian monks and the Amish. When he first encounters the Amish he mistakes them for rabbis due to their similar attire, perhaps symbolising that we’re not all so different. Here Gene Wilder shows he is an actor who is not afraid to celebrate their religion and culture on screen; even if he is playing a neurotic Jew but not in an annoying way. The Frisco Kid is a movie which could possibly appeal to the both the religious minded and the atheist alike.