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.