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Brimstone, Ashes and Robert Aldrich

The only time I ever laid eyes on the great Robert Aldrich was at a test screening of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” at the Esquire Theater in Chicago, in what must have been the fall of 1976. He stepped out of a limousine, with those famous eyebrows curling upward, and maneuvered his imposing bulk straight past the gaggle of slack-jawed cinephiles who were waiting in line to see what would turn out to be his last masterpiece. At that point, the film still contained the scenes with Vera Miles as the wife of the President (Charles Durning), in what I recall as a couple of split-screen telephone conversations (one of the movie’s major motifs is electronic, as opposed to interpersonal, contact) that were probably meant to make during’s character more human and sympathetic, though as it turned out, Durning’s performance had plenty of warmth (both real and manufactured-on-demand) and Aldrich rightly decided that the Miles scenes broke up the male-dominated storyline without adding a great deal to the picture.

The Olive disc comes from a first rate restoration by Bavaria Studios that at last does justice in home video to Aldrich’s elaborate and careful use of the split-screen technique — at the time, something of a cliche on its way out, but deployed here in a manner that makes sense both emotionally (bringing together the principal players– Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, and Durning — who are operating from widely separated locations) and thematically (the movie insists on screens within screens, images within images, in a game of infinite reflection). As a supplement, Olive includes Robert Fischer’s excellent 68-minute documentary on the film’s making, “Aldrich over Munich,” which contains much intriguing information on the unusual (for then) circumstances of the shoot, which required America to be recreated on soundstages and open fields in southern Germany.

The film is still a killer — ferociously political at the same time it possess a stateliness and dignity straight out of Corneille. My New York Times review is here, along with a few words about another Cold War fiction recently rescued from distribution limbo, Ralph Thomas’s 1956 comedy “The Iron Petticoat” with Bob Hope and Katharine Hepburn.

48 comments to Brimstone, Ashes and Robert Aldrich

  • Daniel F.

    Kudos on your astute validation of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING here, Dave. After I saw it in a lousy, duped version, I was still bowled over by some of the powerful sequences, the effective split-screen tension Aldrich had been developing through the 70s, and an array of delicious ensemble performances. This calibrated release by Olive is also overdue. Some older critical assessments I had read — I am sorry, as I do not recall where or by whom — seemed to give the film short shrift, and casually dismissed TLG as a rather awkward, “old dinosaur” film. Such did not reconcile with my personal viewing experience.

  • Kenneth Bowser

    Hi Dave,
    Always liked that film. Looking back I can see why it wasn’t a hit. Aldrich’s straight on non cynical P.O.V. was already out of fashion. Brando famously said, come back to me in hundred years and we’ll see if the Godfather is Art. People like you will, hopefully, keep these very perishable works alive long enough for that discussion to take place.

  • John Dash

    Dave K, Is this the right edit of your blog entry? I am seeing some uncharacteristic language here.

  • Alex

    TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING seemed a terrific film when I saw it back during its first release –a worthy companion piece to KISS ME DEADLY (which it resembles in its atmosphere of nuclear dread). As I recall, though the film is a little diminished by a tension between the gravity of Gen. Lawrence Dell’s articulation of the madness of mutually assured destruction and a paranoid application of balance of power theory, and the clear and present danger of Dell’s madness. It perhaps more an achievement in suspenseful melodrama dignified by strains of intellectual seriousness and noble tragedy than a case of fully realized tragedy. It fall somewhere between the thru complete artistic judgment and control of KISS ME DEADLY with its perfectly pitched surrealism and the raucous vigor of the DIRTY DOZEN, to cite only Aldrich’s best films.

    A message film? It certainly has a vision of U.S. foreign policy to covey, if not he message films typically optimistic sales pitch.

    A good companion piece ot STRANGELOVE as well as KISS ME DEADLY. though, as I recall, KuBrick’s Cold War world ends at dawn’s early light.

  • Thanks for pointing that out, John Dash. Looks like I posted a draft instead of the final edit. Should be fixed now.

  • “What so proudly we hailed…”: I look forward to the full version of TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING of 146 minutes. When I caught the movie in 1977 in Finland it was a short version of 126 minutes.

  • I rushed to see “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” when it opened in NYC in 1977. A good thing I did because it closed after a two week run. At the time the late Senator George McGovern was teaching at Columbia University and endorsed the movie with a quote that accompanied print ads (the fact that McGovern liked the movie enhanced his esteem for me.) I’m guessing that I saw the 146 minute version.

    As Dave noted, it was bad timing for this kind of picture however great and innovative it was.

    About 15 years ago I saw a faded 16mm print of “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” and found it as radical as ever (in all sense of the word.)

  • Barry Putterman

    As x says, you really had to rush out to see TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING in New York in 1977. I recall seeing it in one of the smaller subdivisions of a Times Square movie palace which had already been multiplexed. That, in itself, was as telling commentary on the times as was the reception of the film.

    The “old dinosaur” tag actually seems all but inevitable. Not only was it steeped in the “America stinks” ethos which prevaded the earlier 70s “New American Cinema” period which was, in turn, now being rebelled against, but it also featured a cast of studio system holdovers who were then mostly appearing in lumbering all-star eyesores like CASSANDRA CROSSING, which made it seem even more remote to TODAY.

    But of course, today is tomorrow’s yesterday…or something like that. And it certainly is an exciting prospect to realize that in just a couple of years we will be able to know whether THE BIRTH OF A NATION is art or not. Even if Marlon Brando isn’t around any longer to certify it.

  • alex

    Nice description of TLG Barry.

    TLG was at the mall in Madison Wis -but maybe only for a week.

  • I recall watching TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING with my dad on HBO/Max in the pre-home video era. I think its only US exposure since the early 80s was a Key Video tape. A welcome release.

    Also now out on DVD in the US: Aldrich’s excellent AUTUMN LEAVES, part of a “Joan Crawford at Columbia” box set available from the TCM website.

    (Compared to something like WHEN TIME RAN OUT, THE CASSANDRA CROSSING is UGETSU MONOGATARI, but the point is taken. Disaster films were safe havens for the 70s-era senior set.)

  • jbryant

    I saw TLG on VHS in a Tony Williams class at Black Rock back in the day. Of course his instruction made up a bit for the infelicitous presentation.

  • Tony Williams

    Well done, Dave. I’ve just looked at the documentary on the DVD following my return from the UK and have always run TWILIGHT in my Aldrich and Vietnam on Film classes. The VHS copy that Jerry mentions came from the laserdisk version which another student did for me. It still provokes reaction on the part of some students, one of whom accused me of running an “unpatriotic class” showing material deeply offensive to veterans. However, as Sandy Towns (Richard Jaeckel) says in the film, “They just don’t want to know.” With each screening I become more impressed with Lancaster’s performance, one of the last Aldrich savior-destroyer figures as flawed as Lt. Costa in ATTACK. It is not enough to have right on your side. Balance and strategy are also important as the ex-fottball player director recognized all too wekk

  • Thanks, Tony. It’s worth noting, too, that “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” is far from being an anti-military film: not only does the Jaeckel character privde an important, practical-realist counterpoint to Lancaster’s visionary idealism, but it’s the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Simon Scott) who is the sole member of the cabinet to suggest that the American people can be trusted to deal with the revelations of the secret document.

  • Tony Williams

    Sure, Simon Scott is the only military figure in the Cabinet who has risen from the ranks but even he rallies round the flag at the end. Note also the cut to Joseph Cotten when Scott makes the statement about the American people being trusted.

  • David Cohen

    Strikes me that Burt Lancaster was in a run of fascinating films from the mid 1970s through the early 1980s: this film, 1900, BUFFALO BILL AND THE INDIANS OR SITTING BULL’S HISTORY LESSON, ATLANTIC CITY, and LOCAL HERO. Perhaps GO TELL THE SPARTANS belongs on the list too though I can’t recall much about it. … He wasn’t making much of an impact at the box office at that point but there is a lot of good work in that batch of films.

  • Barry Putterman

    David, you could add in CATTLE ANNIE AND LITTLE BRITCHES, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND and LITTLE TREASURE. For me, Lancaster was an actor who gained in dimension as he grew older and that almost frightening energetic power was gradually engulfed by experience, exhaution and defeat.

  • David Cohen

    He certainly aged and matured much better than the young’uns of the 1970s who had seemingly rendered him obsolete. A festival of “Late Lancaster” would be much more fascinating than “Late De Niro” or “Late Pacino” or “Late Hoffman.”

  • jbryant

    THE IRON PETTICOAT is on TCM tomorrow night, then again on Dec. 16.

    Robert Aldrich’s …ALL THE MARBLES airs 12/7, and AUTUMN LEAVES on 12/8.

    December is packed with William A. Seiter titles, IT’S A PLEASURE (12/3), BACK PAY, SUNNY, WAY BACK HOME, YOUNG BRIDE, IF YOU COULD ONLY COOK, IT’S A DATE and BELLE OF THE YUKON (all on 12/4), THIS IS MY AFFAIR (12/5) and BORDERLINE (12/11). Perhaps our host can give us some guidance on these.

    On 12/16 is something you don’t see every day: Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s made-for-TV A CAROL FOR ANOTHER CHRISTMAS, a Rod Serling update of A CHRISTMAS CAROL which aired as a “United Nations Special” in 1964. The cast includes Sterling Hayden, Eva Marie Saint, Peter Sellers, Ben Gazzara, Robert Shaw, James Shigeta, Pat Hingle and Steve Lawrence. Never heard of this!

    On 12/30, there’s a 1919 Mary Pickford title, Sidney Franklin’s THE HOODLUM.

  • Lancaster was unique among his peers in continuing to be a more restless talent in his later years; most had more typical assembly line careers. (That said TWILIGHT’S Melvyn Douglas blossomed in his dotage.)

  • Tony Williams

    According to a recent biography, Lancaster deeply regretted remaining silent during the blacklist period that also saw his former partner Harold Hecht actively involved. He tried to make amends later. Douglas was the husband of the slandered Helen Gahagan Douglas and was also Jewish. It is not surprising that TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING Mrepresented the collaboration of talents fully aware of this period and determined to make an artistic and radical political film for the time.

  • “TWILIGHT’S Melvyn Douglas blossomed in his dotage.”

    Douglas was gray listed after his wife was branded as “the pink lady” by Nixon and his regressive campaign team. Up until 1949 (with the exception of the war years when he was in the service)Douglas worked in pictures without interruption, seguing from leading man to character actor nicely.

    From 1950 to 1962 he worked in the New York theater and television there, returning to films in 1962 with his role in “Billy Budd” (a UK production.) His first post gray list Hollywood movie was “Hud.”

  • “Douglas was the husband of the slandered Helen Gahagan Douglas and was also Jewish.”

    And the witch hunters were not above Jew baiting. Douglas, along with Edward G. Robinson and John Garfield (and others I don’t recall at the moment)were singled out for changing their names, a sure sign of subversion and un-Americanism.

  • alex

    Any strong advocates of Aldrich s Hollywood films here?

  • Barry Putterman

    There was indeed an element of “nativism” in the post World War II anti-Communist movement just as there had been in the post World War I movement.

    By the same token, it shouldn’t be forgotten that in a country where they made up an extremely tiny proportion of the overall population, the power structure of the Hollywood studio system was overwhelmingly dominated by Jews. And a very conscious awareness of that situation colored Hollywood’s reaction to a number of social issues, including the blacklist.

  • Tony Williams

    In that case, they should not have given up but fought back knowing full well how capitulation worked in the Third Reich which many Republican right-wingers such as Dies etc supported in the late 30s and early 1940s.

  • putney swope

    (Reader since the beginning of this blog, and of your great work Mr. Kehr from the very beginning of your time in Chicago. You were a major force in my growing love of films in 70’s chicago, thanks)
    Great to know a excellent disk has been released. Here in Japan there has a been a dvd for years (and usually an Aldrich section in larger video stores!), but this is a welcome addition.
    Curiously a restored print of …All The Marbles has been running in Tokyo recently (under it’s original Japanese name, California Dolls), as well as a small Aldrich book (in Japanese) to coincide. rumors of a retrospective for next year as well.
    Always felt TLG, as well as Hustle, were unfairly overlooked.Great to see it getting it’s due.

  • Barry Putterman

    Well, of course it is so much easier to be certain of what other people in other circumstances should have done. Particularly in hindsight.

  • Alex Hicks


    “The Third Reich, which many Republican right-wingers such as Dies etc supported in the late 30s and early 1940s.”

    Hard for me to imagine that back in the days of what politcal scienctists call the “three party system of 1938-1976/1980,”any Republican right-wingers would not have hand Southern Democratic analogs –indeed allies.

    After all, an electoral map of the 1948 Dixiecrat vote would catch the hot spot of an electoral map of the of the contemporary Republican vote. (Lincoln was out most radical president of the 19th cntury and TR’s Bull Moose platform of 1912 was the most radical, relative to its time; ever put forward buy a candidate to get over 25 % of the U.S. vote: Warren was Repbulican and Eisenhower sent the Nationl Guard into Arkansas and Alabama.)

    On the other hand, it is possible that some arcane aspect of the Southern Democratic alliance with the Democratic New Deal core, tilted Southern Democrates toward their nominal Democratic identity rather their Republican confederates of the “Southern Coalition” (with whom Southern Democrats tended to vote with Reopublicans on social, economic, racial and Froegn policy issues from the shock of the 1938 national labor standards Act to somewhere between the fall of Nixon and rise of Reagan.)

    Mainly just being nostalgic

  • Tony Williams

    Alex, I think Reynold Humphries book HOLLYWOOD’S BLACKLISTS and a recent anthology of essays UNAMERICAN HOLLYWOOD deals with these issues. I remember Jean Rouverol’s comment, “Robert Aldrich saved my family from starvation” that shows others opposed those producers who complied with the blacklist heedless of the fact that many of the families of those victims would face starvation and worse. As a member of rich banking family from Long Island, Aldrich deserves full credit for doing what he did at the time as well as his sterling contributions to industry working conditions during his terms as the head of the Director’s Guild of America.

  • alex

    I think we re talking passed each other. I was just commenting on Americans unoppossed to or sympathetic toward Nazies –without any thought of Blacklisting.

  • Twilight’s Last Gleaming was also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2012.
    Here you can read Peter von Bagh’s linear notes (in English too):

  • Mike Gebert

    To be fair, young Melvyn Douglas is a pretty damned dull romantic lead (and not THAT good looking). The old man blossomed into a great character actor, kind of out of nowhere.

  • Off-topic but wanted to mention that Robert Zemeckis was interviewed on NPR two days ago: The questions are pretty soft and some of them are a variation of his Academy of Achievement interview from 15 years ago but it’s still interesting; among other things he talks about designing the lighting in the minifridges. I didn’t realize he’s a pilot himself.

  • By 1962 and BILLY BUDD, at age 61, Douglas hit his stride, with two Oscars to come in the next twenty years. Anyone see his penultimate credit, Roger Vadim’s THE HOT TOUCH, with Wayne Rogers and Marie-France Pisier?

  • Alex

    Nothing dull about Melvyn in “Ninoshka” — which is lead glory enough,

  • Don’t forget ANGEL, also for Lubitsch.

  • Barry Lane

    Ninotchka practically cries for Cary Grant. Who was indeed first choice. Re The Hot Touch. I have not only seen but had several friend on and in it. Shot in Monreal in the late seventies it is impossibly inept and requires no analysis, reviews, appreciation or anything else. Just forget it. A product of ineperienced producers and Canadian nationalism.

  • What I figured, Barry, thanks. It’s rare to find a movie on the Internet Movie Database that has neither “external” nor “user” reviews, indicating a quick burial. I doubt it even played US cable, unlike many dubious Canadian films (and some good ones) from that era.

  • Tony Williams

    Let us also not forget Melvyn’s embodiment of the monstrous patriarch in two other films of the 70s – THE CANDIDATE and I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER – making his conflation of Dean Acheson and Henry Kissinger in TWILIGHT ideal casting.

  • THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING is not bad either. The “Egeszsegere” sequence is my favourite (it means “cheers” in Hungarian). Melvyn Douglas plays the workaholic insurance salesman who organizes a dinner party at his home for Universal Mattress and United Furniture, both companies run by Hungarians, and the role of the wife (Merle Oberon) is to utter that word, and the big joke is that it works. The even bigger joke is that the salesman who is about to lose his wife starts to apply his salesman methods to his marriage, and they work, too. Melvyn Douglas has the Lubitschean blend of sharp satire and true tenderness.

  • alex

    To the casing queue ( for suave leading men) of Grant Milland and Montgomery spelled out by Hitchcock in comments on Mr. And Mrs. Smith one might next add Douglas — or Powell and then Douglas — but with no indignity to Douglas Or Ninotchka.

    Then there were leading men.

  • Mike Gebert

    “Nothing dull about Melvyn in “Ninoshka” — which is lead glory enough”

    Have to admit that’s a classic that never did that much for me. Who knows why.

  • nicolas saada

    Back in the days when I was a young cinephile, Aldrich belonged to a certain category of directors, with Fulleŕ, and to a certain extent Ray and Fleischer. They were genre filmmakers who used the genre as metaphor, allegory. With the years Aldrich became more and more fascinating: like Preminger, he had ambition, produced his films, and survived the turning point of he early sixties in Hollywood. I saw a bad print of TLG a long time ago. It’s a companion to SEVEN DAYS IN MAY, another military-conspiracy theory film. They almost became a sub genre in the sixties. But Aldrich goes one step further here.

  • Tony Williams

    Nicolas, He certainly does. TLG is perhaps the only film to touch on the political dimensions of the Vietnam War as Andrew Britton noted in his MOVIE article “Sideshows in Vietnam.” The section in Loren Baritz’s BACKFIRE is also very relevant here.

  • Someone should mention Tony Williams’ BODY AND SOUL: THE CINEMATIC VISION OF ROBERT ALDRICH (2004). This studies all of Aldrich’s films. It has a detailed chapter on TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING.

    I still have never seen TWILIGHT’S LAST GLEAMING, and am glad that it is finally out in a decent version and format.

  • Alex

    Of courtse there are documentaries –Two Days in October, The Long War of John Kerry, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara, etc., etc. — that go deeply into the politics of the Vietnam war.

    But on these politcs, TLS certainly transcends SEVEN DAYS IN MAY and everything else of a fictional sort.


  • Alex Hicks

    Availability for “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” begins today at Netflix, though “expected availability” currently is “Very long wait” (due no doubt in good part to Dave K’s excellent November review).