Burt Lancaster and tough guy director Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen) had a long association together that began on Apache back in 1954 and then on to Vera Cruz in the same year. Fast forward to 1972 and they released their third western, Ulzana’s Raid. For their fourth and final collaboration they give us a tale of nuclear power and the responsibilities that come with it.
Lancaster heads an outstanding cast in this doomsday thriller playing a disposed General who makes his way into an underground missile silo in Montana with three military convicts. His intentions will soon become clear to the assembled chiefs of staff in the oval office.
Burt, Paul Winfield, Burt Young and William Smith find themselves smoothly gaining access to the underground military installation and quickly overtake Richard Jaeckel and the other men on duty. Loose cannon Smith isn’t exactly to Burt’s liking and is quickly disposed of. “I chose the wrong man for the job.” Lancaster tells his remaining partners.
Enter Richard Widmark as a four star General who has crossed paths with Lancaster previously. They don’t like each other and Widmark isn’t quite sure at this point if Lancaster has full access to the nine missiles at the Montana location. It’s Widmark versus Lancaster in some very tense phone conversations. “We have launch control. We are now a super power.”
It’s at this point that Widmark has to call the President as played by Charles Durning. Durning assembles his staff and the majority of their scenes are played out around a table but I have to point out the tension of the script never allows for their planning and arguments to be deciphered as dull.
Durning’s group includes a top flight group of talented actors. Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Marshall and Gerald S. O’Loughlin.
Lancaster begins his bargaining with Durning. Money, freedom and the catch being the release of a top secret document to the public immediately on what a previous administration had secretly discussed over the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war. It’s a scathing report that Durning has trouble believing had actually taken place. Elder statesman Cotten confirms the document and reasons at the time are true.
Naturally we have the military point of view which includes McGraw and Widmark wanting the go ahead from Durning to launch an assault on Lancaster and the near disaster that occurs following Burt’s discovery of the attempted assault. It’s at this point the joint chiefs of staff realize that a modern day messiah is in their midst. Lancaster really does have full launch control. “You try one more goddamned stunt and I’ll light up the f—ng sky! ”
Full marks to director Aldrich here as the level of tension reaches out from the screen and pulls us in. This is equally enhanced by the musical score put forth by Jerry Goldsmith.
In order to move forward and somehow solve the stalemate, Lancaster asks for a hostage to guarantee their safe being. The President himself.
Not generally in favor of the split screen process, I find Aldrich admirably makes it work this time out. It’s through the process that he does such a fine job at heightening the tension at various points throughout including much of the dialogue which takes place over phones between Lancaster and Widmark.
Once again Lancaster commands the screen in his scenes that are mainly confined to a launch control far beneath the ground. Full marks to Paul Winfield for matching up stoically with Burt as a good majority of the time they are on screen together. Burt Young plays the usual Burt Young character and Jaeckel gets in some good exchanges with Burt as well.
The film’s real highlight for me has to be the vulnerability displayed in what should have been an award winning performance by Charles Durning as the President. He’s that good. A wonderful job displaying both fear and the stirred up emotions of wanting to do what’s right. I thought this on my last viewing a few years back and that opinion was only reinforced once again. He’s totally believable and though it’s a fictional President, it just might be the best portrayal Durning gave over the course of his long career. Really….. he’s that good.
Equally impressive are Melvyn Douglas and O’Loughlin as the two men Durning turns to the most for their valued opinions. Melvyn as the Secretary of Defence was by this time making movies for almost fifty years and still delivers a first rate performance here and a rather disturbing one at that in the final analysis.
Twilight also should be noted as the final appearance on screen of long time gravel voiced tough guy Charles McGraw who would pass away in 1980 leaving us with a large volume of Noir favorites to remember him by.
Personal favorite Richard Jaeckel like Lancaster had a long association with the director. Aldrich employed Jaeckel for the first time on The Big Leaguer in 1953 and subsequently in Attack (1956), 4 For Texas (1963), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Ulzana’s Raid (1972), and in Aldrich’s final film, All the Marbles (1981).
Though the launch pad and silo may not look like something we would envision in a film made today the plot of this movie can never really be considered dated as it’s just as timely today as it was in ’77 and in Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or Lumet’s Fail-Safe in the sixties.
Another fine film to look for with Burt clearly at the head of the class.
For a look at the other Aldrich-Lancaster- Jaeckel teaming from the 1970’s take a look at Kristina’s article on the film at over at Speakeasy.