Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

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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 times. 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 characters 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 fulfill 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 a lot 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 remarkably 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 a 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.

Seven Days In May (1964)

Olympus Has Fallen

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Seven Days In May is a film which tapped into cold war paranoia but still has relevance for today’s increasingly unstable political world. Now that we have arrived in the age of Trump and many people would shockingly actually like the premise of this high concept political thriller to play out successfully in real life, what better time to revisit Seven Day In May. A military coup in the United States? This is the kind of thing that happens in banana republics, not in the most powerful nation on Earth. The fantastical set up is the appeal of a movie like this; the idea that the so-called haven of democracy could potentially crumble. The big question though; could it happen in real life? Are the events in the movie plausible? To the laymen viewer, they are at least.

Seven Days In May has some powerhouse actors with serious charisma talking some serious politics; no action, just heart-pounding wordy exchanges. General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is a believer in a nuclear deterrent and doesn’t trust the Russians to hold their side of the deal. Is he someone who has a genuine concern or is he a megalomaniac taking advantage of a situation or both? The pairing Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas couldn’t be a better combo as military personnel with a mutual respect for each other. Their relationship is where much of the film’s emotion is drawn from with Douglas looking up to Lancaster and his eventual betrayal of him. Ava Gardner on the other and is the weakest link in an otherwise stellar cast. I’ve never thought much of her as an actress and this comes through here with a performance which is serviceable not much more.

The scene in which Kirk Douglas is pitched with the task of explaining to the President there may be a military coup to overthrow his administration is one of the best examples of expository delivery I’ve ever seen. I believe there are two reasons for this; firstly Kirk Douglas’ sheer screen presence and charisma and secondly, the tension is drawn from him embarrassing himself while trying to explain such a fantastical military coup. He delivers the lengthy monologue nervous and under pressure but while still remaining dignified. Plus that camera zoom and head tilt when he summarises his monologue makes the hairs stand up.

John Frankenheimer is one of the most visually striking directors in black & white with his use of shades of tones, he has a very striking style. The Saul Bass-style opening credits on the other hand show why the 1960’s was a golden age for title sequences as Hollywood attempted to draw audiences away from the TV and into the theatre.

Fredric March makes for a convincing leader as President Jordan Lynman. He is not a Trumpain figure, no he’s far humbler than that. His course of action over the last year bordered on criminal negligence, or at least according to General Scott. He has a 29% approval rating and the public has voiced “a universal rejection of your entire political philosophy” according to Gallop poll; he is a man who is not upholding his democratic mandate. Should there still be a respect for the office of the president if the country is against him? What’s more important, protecting a country against its government or loyalty to the constitution? The viewer is left to make up their own mind and the movie does not take sides. We never know the political ideology of any of the characters; the words republican, democrat, conservative or liberal is never mentioned. Seven Days In May is a movie with no clear-cut hero or villain; both sides believe what they are doing is for the best of America and by extension the world. By the end the answer as to who Judas is not so black and white (“Yes I know who Judas was. He was a man I worked for and admired until he disgraced the four stars on his uniform”).

Executive Action (1973)

That’s What They Want You To Think!

Executive Action was released 10 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and thus is a film by those who remember the day and its aftermath so vividly. Executive Action blends fiction and historical fact into creating one possible scenario to who was responsible for the assassination of JFK, but one which the movie makes feel convincing. The film is a great companion piece to Oliver Stone’s JFK; Stone has stated Executive Action was a basis on inspiration for JFK and it’s not hard to see aspects of JFK within Executive Action. Like in JFK, there is much intercutting of archive footage and black & white flashbacks, while the military like score by Randy Edelman feels reminiscent of John William’s score to JFK.

Much of the film is comprised of engrossing documentary like discussions and presentations, making it like an adaptation of a stage play. Those behind the assassination in Executive Action are a small group of businessmen, political figures and former US Intelligence personnel. They spend much of the movie alone in a mansion and come off as people who are out of touch with common society, nor are they keen on civil rights or minorities. They’re like a secret society and are interested in their own agenda – an elite who believe it’s their duty to pull off an action such as assassinating individuals to preserve their interests; in fact it’s even stated this isn’t the first time any of them have taken part in an assassination; these are businessmen controlling the world. Will Geer plays a stereotypical looking southern businessman who looks a bit like Colonel Sanders, while Burt Lancaster’s menacing performance reminds me of his role of the evil business mogul J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success. These are cold-blooded, emotionless men and the entire film is deliberately acted in low key performances. Whereas JFK is a film driven by emotion, Executive Action is the opposite in this respect.

The film does an effective job at recreating 1963 with the fashions and cars on show and despite the low budget, there are aerial shots of Dealey Plaza with the appropriate cars on the road and a recreation the billboard sign on top of the book depository as it looked in 1963. My only downside to Executive Action is the film’s inconsistent pacing. The middle portion of the film drags as the story becomes less eventful, but the suspense builds up once the day of the assassination has arrived.

Executive Action was made during a period when paranoia/conspiracy thrillers where at their height and right during the Watergate scandal; yet has been swept under the rug of history as it is the type of film which would be easily dismissed by critics for being speculative and other such dirty words. Thus there is a taboo like joy which comes from watching a provocative, somewhat trashy film like this.

I also recommend watching the vintage featurette on the Executive Action DVD. During it the film’s screenwriter Dalton Trumbo states he didn’t believe in any conspiracy theories until he read the Warren Report and a dozen books on the subject and became convinced the president had been killed by bullets from two different angles. Likewise, Burt Lancaster tells of how he became increasingly convinced of a probable conspiracy when doing his research. It goes to show how easy it is to be swayed into believing the JFK conspiracy.

The Swimmer (1968)

The Death Of The American Dream

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

On a lazy sunny afternoon, Ned Merrill (Burt Lancaster) embarks on an adventure in which he swims through every pool in the county as he makes his way back to his own house. Frank Perry’s The Swimmer is a film which will leave the viewer initially confused with various characters’ actions and the unexpected dramatic shifts in emotion however by the conclusion, Merrill’s swimming pool equivalent of a pub crawl starts to make sense and comes together like a jigsaw puzzle. The opening scene would have you believe Ned Merrill is a pillar of his community, but as the film progresses it turns out this premise is the opposite of reality. Building on one metaphor after another that hints all is not what it seems, The Swimmer is a deep character study on a man whose American Dream became a nightmare, (values which had become disenfranchised by the end of the decade). Much of the acting present from the cast of The Swimmer is reminiscent of a TV soap opera, a possible metaphor for Merrill’s phoney personality? There is a certain degree of enjoyment derived from the film’s idyllic and often naturalistic surroundings (and that corny late-1960s aesthetic) yet when combined with the character’s bizarrely cheery demeanour, the picture creates a very unsettling feeling. The music score by Marvin Hamlisch could be interpreted as a metaphor reflecting Merrill’s personality – grand, dreamy, romantic and pretentious. I do enjoy the 60’s lounge pieces present in the soundtrack, in particular, that titled Lovely Hair, which offers a very relaxing vibe.

The role Ned Merrill is one of Burt Lancaster’s finest acting performances. The film’s acting highlight has to be the scene in which he becomes emotional upon discovering his wife has sold his sentimental hot dog wagon which he played with his kids in. There is something comical about this scene with lines such as “This is my wagon man!” and “I’ll have my lawyers get in touch with you tomorrow”, however with an actor of lesser talent, the scene still wouldn’t retain an undertone of seriousness. Lancaster pulls it off effortlessly and does so wearing only trunks throughout the entire movie, yet still retains his dignity as an actor (likewise, there is also his memorable Charlton Heston-style outburst of “You loved it!”). Ned Merrill is a character filled with so much regret from past experiences that he blindly acts as if nothing has happened and the movie’s portrayal of this is about as extreme and disturbing as it gets while his attempts to defend himself against the scourge of others are just pathetic.

I can recall feeling shaken when I first watched The Swimmer as the film’s conclusion is so tragic beyond words as Merrill returns to a house which has been abandoned for some time and left in a dilapidated state among the melodramatic ambush of wind, rain and thunder. I’ve seen few other movies with an ending as pessimistic, unforgiving and unbearable as that of The Swimmer. No character redemption, just bang in your face, life sucks, deal with it – view before your eyes in horror at a human being who degrades to such a disturbingly pathetic level (it is also worth noting the blurb on the back of the 2003 UK DVD release of The Swimmer actually spoils this incredible ending). The scene earlier in the picture in which Merrill gives a young boy a very poor piece of life advice in which he states “If you make believe hard enough that something is true, then it is true for you”, not only foreshadows the movie’s conclusion but speaks to our modern culture with the dubious concept of having “your truth”. In the age of social media in which many project a life they want others to think they lead as opposed to the life they actually lead, then the ballad of Ned Merrill should act as a cautionary tale (I can only imagine what Merrill’s Facebook or Twitter profiles would be like). To quote that cheesy tagline used in the film’s marketing, “When you talk about The Swimmer, will you talk about yourself?”.

Birdman of Alcatraz (1962)

The Birds

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Birdman of Alcatraz isn’t just a movie, it’s an experience – the story of a man who’s able to lead a meaning and productive existence despite serving a life sentence in solitary confinement. A man who is able to create an empire of bird keeping and aviary research within the solitary confinement quarters of a prison. When I first watched Birdman of Alcatraz I only vaguely knew about the story of Robert Stoud and thus I was in awe as just how his empire gradually comes to be as he MacGvyers the little he has at his disposal to create a grand sanctuary. I don’t know what it’s like to be isolated in a confined area for days on end but I suspect this movie may provide the closest feeling I could ever get to it; black & white cinematography and claustrophobic prison cells go hand in hand not to mention the daunting narration by Edmund O’Brien creates an ongoing sense of foreboding.

Birdman of Alcatraz made me a fan of Burt Lancaster. It was not the first film I had seen him in but it was the first at which I was struck at what an immense powerhouse of an actor he is, carrying a two and a half-hour long, mostly single location picture. His portrayal of Robert Stroud is the classic characterisation of tough on the outside, soft on the inside. A heartless monster who learns the value of humanity and cares for a creature as delicate and feminine as a bird. It’s a dichotomy that can come off as very corny but Lancaster’s immense performance prevents it from coming off like this. Stroud’s relationship with his mother (Thelma Ritter) even has shades to the Cody Jarret mother complex. Yet just as compelling is the relationship between Stroud and the warden played by Karl Malden, which I feel is summed up with one line (and one of my favourite movie quotes), “That convict has been a thorn in my side for 35 years but I’ll give him one thing, he never lied to me.”

Birdman of Alcatraz is a tale of rehabilitation with a clear anti-death penalty message. Early in the film when Stroud’s mother speaks to First Lady Edith Wilson, she speaks of how she believes the current President doesn’t believe in the barbarity of “eye for an eye”. Due to Stroud’s pardon, the stone-cold killer went on to achieve great things in the field of aviary research and discovering cures for various aviary diseases. Later in the film, Stroud’s birds are taken away from him and he is unable to engage in commercial enterprise following rules from the newly established Federal Bureau of Prisons. The pain of seeing the one thing giving Stroud meaning in his life being taken away from him when he’s transferred to Alcatraz is unbearable viewing.

Like many biographical films, Birdman of Alcatraz receives criticism with the historical liberties taken; most prominently in this instance the fact that the real Robert Stroud was reportedly an incredibly unpleasant individual. I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: Movies are not documentaries. When adapting a real-life story to the screen, changes and liberties are likely going to be made for the sake of storytelling and entertainment; would a story closer to the truth have been more interesting? My second rebuttal to the ‘not historically accurate’ criticism is that how many people would even be aware of certain historical figures if it wasn’t for their film biopics; movies can act as a gateway to learning about history. After watching Birdman of Alcatraz I wanted to read about the real Robert Stroud, otherwise, I might not have even heard of the man.