“If I knew the way, I'd go back home…but the countryside has changed so much I'd surely end up lost…half-remembered names and faces, so far in the past on the other side of bridges that were burned once they were crossed…tell me where…where does a fool go when there's no one left to listen...to a story without meaning, that nobody wants to hear…where do we go from here?”
– Paul Williams
Michael Cimino’s directorial debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) is a peerless buddy/buddy action-caper, comedy-drama. In retrospect, the 1970’s were especially adept at combining elements from various tried and true genres to create intriguing hybrids. Not all were successful, by a good many became involving experiments. The story of how two seemingly incompatible reprobates met by chance (let’s call it fate) is at the crux of Cimino’s thoughtful and compelling screenplay. While the movie’s ‘heist’ premise is its raison d'être Cimino’s forte for character-driven drama is exceptionally well thought out. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is principally meditative; the action serving the story – not the other way around, as is the case with today’s similarly occupied drivel. Yet, herein we get a deceptively not so simple story, even more richly satisfying because it is about very complex people trapped in their severely flawed relationships, some motivated by greed. These are misfits who never quite fit into the acceptable fabric of mainstream society, preoccupied with their otherwise less than fortuitous, if mutual decision to have remained apart from the status quo
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot marks a definite turning point in the careers of Michael Cimino and co-stars, Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges; the latter Oscar-nominated for his heartrending performance as this story’s sacrificial lamb. Cinimo, who began his career making short commercials for Madison Ave. was to get his big break because of Eastwood, subsequently looking to expand upon his own galvanized persona in the movies as the strong, silent antisocial with guts. One of the most heavily debated aspects of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot remains its’ inverted theme of friendship between men – Eastwood, carrying over elements of his trademarked cinema identity as the guy’s guy of very few words; subtly to prove very capable of taking his own decisiveness to heart. Interestingly, Jeff Bridges thoroughly loquacious sidekick becomes the centerpiece, even more remarkably, without Eastwood’s gravitas or that of an accomplished crook. Lightfoot is, at once, endearing yet quite remarkably unable to be taken seriously. Throughout, the picture is fraught with the crackle of a homoerotic subtext or perhaps just a good-natured bro-mantic chemistry. Who can say? In the final reel, neither fellow is talking – Eastwood, because talking just isn’t his thing; Bridges, for more ominously unsettling and penultimate tragic reasons (spoiler alert – more on this in a moment).
Compared to like-minded popcorn pleasers of its vintage (and certainly most any movie being made today), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is excitingly multi-layered; a tinge of raunchy humor, deft social commentary, self-conscious ruminating, and, even a glimmer of the Shakespearean tragedy recast with commoners instead of nobility and relocated to the sparse wilds of Montana, radiantly photographed by Frank Stanley. For Jeff Bridges –just another fresh face in a sea of many back then, and, struggling to make his mark, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was the beginning of everything. For Eastwood, the movie provided yet another testament to his clear-eyed skills as an actor/producer, intuitively capable of spotting a winner (as though any further proof were required). Perhaps we have forgotten the bumpy road to greatness: how this ensconced and iconic anti-hero from the Sergio Leone revisionist spaghetti western cycle went on to become an important and increasingly respected figure in American cinema, that for Eastwood it must have seemed kismet to align his stars with these two newcomers to the Hollywood scene. Time and tenure have thus confirmed Eastwood’s knack for recognizing a good solid opportunity to advance his career and develop a more varied body of work, both in front of and behind the camera.
Alas, for Michael Cimino the veneer was rather thin. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, his first directorial assignment is a distinct leg up – as it were – given credence by Eastwood’s blind faith and clout in Hollywood to get it made on his own terms, and, by his own production company – Malpaso. The picture had first been proposed by William Morris agent, Stan Kamen, citing the public’s recent fascination with ‘road pictures’ after Dennis Hopper’s wildly popular, counterculture classic, Easy Rider (1969). But Cimino had come to Hollywood with nothing more on his résumé than a series of expensive TV commercials made for some very high profile New York clients; trading in his day job for a chance at the big time. How swift is the rise of a legend and legacy; and as lamentably quick, its fall. The implosion of Heaven’s Gate (1980) just two years after Cimino had been hailed the crown prince of Hollywood with his multi-Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter would leave his reputation in tatters. But for the moment, he was riding the crest of an exhilarating new chapter in his fledgling career under Eastwood’s expert tutelage, delivering his movie on time and under budget. Eastwood kept tight reigns on the production, encouraging it along when Cimino might have preferred to dally.
Yet, Cimino, who could be counted upon for his caustic, scathing opinions about Hollywood folk, maintained a genuine respect for his star/producer herein, later stating that if not for Eastwood he would never have made it past the front gate. And Thunderbolt and Lightfoot unequivocally confirms Eastwood’s faith in Cimino has not been misplaced. Fair enough, this is not a Michael Cimino film; Cimino in the director’s chair, though arguably not entirely in control of the picture’s destiny. Nor does it represent the visionary who would later spellbind both audiences and an industry with his lengthy, often lyrical tome and critique about the Vietnam experience in The Deer Hunter (made four years later), or the painterly wanderer in search of truth and greatness, destined to be denied both and entered into the log of film immortality as a negligent despot consumed by his own overindulgences on Heaven’s Gate two years thereafter. But Thunderbolt and Lightfoot rises to the occasion as an engrossing plat de jour of the road picture subgenre; Eastwood’s star cache practically ensuring the movie to turn a profit. Even so, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has a lot more going for it than Eastwood’s participation.
For one: Paul William’s superb underscore, at once understated yet profound, and featuring the prophetic ballad, ‘Where Do I Go From Here’ with such sweetly panged lyrics as “Tell me where - where does a fool go when there’s no one left to listen, to a story without meaning that nobody wants to hear. Tell me where – where does a fool go, when he knows there’s somethin’ missin’; tell me where – where do I go from here?” Where, indeed? Perhaps, to sing the praises of Michael Cimino’s deft and sure-footed direction. Remember, this is his first movie. But Cimino maneuvers his camera through some very wide-open spaces like a seasoned pro, capturing the remote grandeur of, Hobson, Fort Benton, Wolf Creek and Great Falls, Montana without ever allowing any of it to overshadow the intimate ‘love story’ unexpectedly developing between its stars: no, not that kind of love, but a deeper, more fulfilling and infinitely more rewarding compensation in kinship. American movies have a generalized aversion to showing us candid warmth between men. Either it is frowned upon entirely or deflated by the stock, usually glib and utterly self-deprecating buddy/buddy repartee. Real ‘reel’ men, it seems, are incapable of seeking out and appreciating the admirable qualities in each other without the green-eyed specter of competition (either healthy or un-) creeping into the mix. Refreshing – even revolutionary – to get quite the opposite in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; the climax of the picture, the affecting loss of one of these manly men distinctly felt by the other.
And then there are the as yet unmentioned villains of the piece to recommend; George Kennedy’s superb Red Leary – unscrupulous and menacing, and, his foppish crony; the incongruously named Eddie Goody (played strictly for laughs by the scene-stealing Geoffrey Lewis). Perhaps in part due to his size and stature, Kennedy’s métier in the movies has typecast him as the perennially dim-bulb/thug muscle (though he could be as adept at playing swiftly assured men of action in movies like Airport 1970, given half the chance). He is positively brutish in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – an irredeemable, oft grotesque pig of a human being with zero compunction about exploiting, selling out, or even leaving for dead his partners in crime. If only his Leary had more on the ball between those lumbering shoulders he might make out alright as the human gorilla with an avaricious desire to succeed. On the flipside is Lewis’ shifty-eyed ditz with a gat; looking ridiculously festive in his pristine white ice cream truck driver’s uniform (a cover to get to know the lay of the land for the planned robbery afoot). Why an oaf like Leary would keep Eddie around is a mystery. He cannot even competently discharge his firearm without a nod from his sullen handler. Thankfully, Lewis makes something more – or perhaps even, better – from this rather stock cliché in comic relief; an acutely sincere yet utterly insecure daydreamer to whom these planned riches will never be his to possess. Kennedy and Leary are the Mutt and Jeff of the piece; great counterpoints to the lanky Bridges, a sort of dapper wannabe stud, and, the sinewy Eastwood; butch enough to entice the male ticket buyer into the theater, but able to satisfy as roughhewn eye-candy for the discerning women in the audience.
Again, we arrive at the narrative point of interest to an entire body of film scholarship; lending its nod to homosexual discourse, with Bridges’ moment in drag a particular citation worthy of distillation and critique. Emblematic references to gender-bending aside, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does, in fact, contain a curiously ample amount of references to men enjoying the company of other men. Bridges’ Lightfoot, with his already graceful moniker, prone to infrequent giddy chirps like a tufted titmouse, is virtually incapable of satisfying his primal sexual urges with the opposite sex. Tooting his horn at a female motorcyclist (Karen Lamm) only incurs her wrath. She, in fact, takes a hammer to the heavy metal side panel of his borrowed van before taking off down the road, Lightfoot shouting after her with meaningless abandonment, “I think I love you”. In another incident, a horny housewife (Luanne Roberts) does everything but plaster her naked self against the clear expanse of a patio door to entice the shirtless and sweat-soaked lawn jockey into a flagrante delicto. Yet all Lightfoot can do is stare. It isn’t exactly an adoring gaze either, but one fraught with nervous bewilderment and certainly nowhere as full of adoration as the looks Lightfoot shoots Thunderbolt throughout this movie. But are these glances the panged overtures of a closeted homosexual or simply the long-suppressed emotions of an unhappy child who thinks he has suddenly found a long-lost surrogate father-figure in Eastwood’s largely romanticized ex-con about to re-enter the arena of crime? Eastwood’s Thunderbolt is not exactly adverse to Lightfoot’s puppy love, perhaps never more bitter-sweetly expressed than in the final moments of the movie, when the fatally-stricken Lightfoot says goodbye with a sort of subliminal ‘I love you’ caught in his sad squinty eyes, Thunderbolt’s disbelief at his partner’s sudden and unexpected passing “Hey kid…ah, geez!” carrying more weight in Eastwood’s delivery than of the line as written.
Our story begins when a hotshot ne'er-do-well going by the name of Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) steals a Trans-Am from a used car lot. Lightfoot’s out on a spree; living in the moment without any consideration for what might come next. Meanwhile, on an isolated stretch of highway, surrounded by a golden halo of wheat, the ‘reverend’ Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) – hair slicked back, collar turned around – is holding mass in a dingy little house of worship for the Bible-belt faithful. Regrettably, his sermon is interrupted by some able marksmanship via an enraged Red Leary (George Kennedy), who burst into the temple, guns blazing, and making chase through these amber waves of grain. As luck would have it, this happens exactly at the moment Lightfoot is passing through in his stolen car. Spontaneity is Lightfoot’s middle name. So he makes the impromptu decision to pick up ‘the preacher’; the unlikely duo escaping down the open road. Later Thunderbolt confides in Lightfoot that his assailant is actually a former accomplice from a botched robbery he committed on a local bank. Leary believes Thunderbolt - the only surviving member from the old gang – knows exactly where the half million payout is hidden. But Thunderbolt confesses the money’s whereabouts were left in the care of another accomplice; electronics expert, Dunlap, who has since died – saying only the money was being kept behind a blackboard in a one-room school house somewhere in the state of Montana.
The first act of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a rather meandering affair, prone to farcical vignettes that really do not advance the story; including a moment when the pair are picked up on the side of the road by a wild-eyed mountain man (Bill McKinney) driving a rickety old jalopy; a rerouted hose plugged from the exhaust pipe into the backseat so he can inhale the fumes; a rabid raccoon locked in a cage, twelve gauge shotgun on the front seat, and, a trunk full of fluffy white rabbits ready to leap on cue. After escaping this psychopath Lightfoot picks up a pair of prostitutes for the evening; one for Thunderbolt, who doesn’t much care for the offering…at first. Thunderbolt elects to take Lightfoot to Warsaw, Montana to retrieve the money, only to discover the original one-room school house Dunlap described has been replaced by a new state-of-the-art facility. It looks like the end of the line in more ways than one when the pair returns to their car, held at gunpoint by Leary and Eddy. Leary has Thunderbolt drive to a remote area, intent on shooting them dead, but not before he gets Thunderbolt to confess the whereabouts of the money. Having no desire to wind up in a body bag, Thunderbolt plays it straight with Leary. Regrettably, the oafish thug cannot accept the truth, exacting his revenge on Lightfoot with his fists. It is a brutal assault subdued too late by Thunderbolt who gives Leary a taste of his own sour medicine after disarming Eddy first.
Now, Lightfoot proposes another heist. To hell with the lost money! Why not rob the same company again with a minor variation on their original strategy? Everyone agrees the plan has merit. But it will also require some careful planning and camouflage. Thunderbolt suggests they all get jobs in order to raise enough capital to buy the equipment needed to pull off the burglary. Thunderbolt is employed as a welder at a local factory, briefly unnerved when the sultry HR person asks for his social security number (presumably, as a career criminal he has never had one). Lightfoot is hired as a landscape laborer, befriending the boss’s nephew, Curly (Gary Busey, in a brief cameo) who lends him the company’s truck to run an errand. Eddy takes a gig as a sissified ‘Good Humor’ man, using his route to mark time and get the lay of the land. Leary is the holdout, at first absolutely refusing to take on a job, but later rather begrudgingly becoming a night janitor at a local department store – forewarned by one of his coworkers (Alvin Childress) the company’s watch dog is a ruthless killer.
Lightfoot incurs Leary’s wrath by planting a kiss on his cheek. Leary vows to destroy Lightfoot after the heist. But for now the duties ascribed for the robbery are thus divided: Eddy to drive the getaway car, picking up and dropping off everyone under a well-oiled/exceptionally timed plan of execution, designed to minimalize casualties and mishaps. First up, Thunderbolt and Leary stage a break-in at the vault manager’s (Jack Dodson) home; forcing him to give up the safe’s combination. They terrorize his wife and promiscuous sixteen year old daughter in their nylon stocking masks, gagging and tying up the family. Next Thunderbolt, impersonating a security officer, enters the compound, presumably to hold Leary at gunpoint; the pair subduing an armed guard once they have gained access inside the plant. Changing into yet another disguise at the local pool hall, Lightfoot - now in impossibly hammy drag - entices the overweight Night Manager (Cliff Emmich) monitoring the security system (already distracted with indulgences in his porn magazine) before knocking the slug out and gaining access to the controls, turning off the alarm shortly after Thunderbolt and Leary have tripped its censors by firing their armor-piercing canon into the vault walls.
At first, the plan goes off without a hitch, the foursome rendezvousing at a nearby drive-in where they simply plan to take in the show, waiting out the police and then, parting company with their divided shares of the loot. Too bad the drive-in ticket seller notices Leary’s shirt tail protruding from the trunk. As Thunderbolt and Lightfoot have only paid for two admissions, the seller reports the car to her manager who calls the police. Thunderbolt panics and a dangerous chase ensues. The police fire several rounds into the back of the getaway car. Eddy is mortally wounded, his body tossed out by Leary once Thunderbolt has temporarily dodged police and driven into the backwoods. Leary forces Thunderbolt at gunpoint to stop the car. He pistol whips both Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, exacting a particularly vicious payback on the latter by repeatedly kicking him in the head. Taking off with the loot, Leary quickly encounters the police. Unable to evade them, he instead loses control, driving through the front of the same department store where he works as a janitor. The store’s Doberman attacks, going for Leary’s jugular and killing him before the police arrive.
Escaping on foot, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hitch a ride to Warsaw, inadvertently stumbling upon the rumored one-room schoolhouse where the original stolen money is presumed to have been hidden. For a long quiet moment both men survey this heritage site with renewed awe – nee fear – that their quest for the money might have come to not. But then, Thunderbolt begins to pry the blackboard loose from the wall, astonished to discover the $500,000 still sandwiched between the trusses. Only something is terribly wrong. Lightfoot is experiencing repeated bouts of dizziness, blurred vision and numbness in his extremities. Not long afterward, to celebrate their newfound wealth, Thunderbolt buys a Cadillac convertible; the car Lightfoot always wanted to own. It ought to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. But time has run out for Lightfoot who suffers a brain hemorrhage, quietly dying in the front seat with a look of serene pride written across his crooked smile. Unable to comprehend this sudden loss, Thunderbolt speeds off to an unfixed vantage on the horizon and an equally uncertain future as the lone survivor of our ill-fated story.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot did respectable box office. But it was hardly a blockbuster. Clint Eastwood vowed never again to make a picture for United Artists, the distributors, because he felt their lack of a unified marketing campaign had let all of their hard efforts down. Nevertheless, the movie’s cult following has long since endured and rightfully so. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot remains a poignant masterpiece in the buddy/buddy sub-genre, crammed with colorful characters, some starkly beautiful cinematography and book-ended by a truly vibrant narrative, masterfully written and visualized by Michael Cimino. Great movies are often overshadowed and/or overlooked in this passing parade of otherwise disposable entertainments. Good marketing can sell almost anything to the public. Sadly, it usually takes a truly outstanding movie of immeasurable substance to withstand its absence. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot deserved a farther-reaching reputation in its own time. Incontrovertibly, this is a great film!
Twilight Time’s reissued Blu-ray release of the Fox/MGM elements is dynamite: a very crisp image, subtly nuanced with refined colors and minute details that pop off the screen. The accurately rendered flesh tones are exquisite. Contrast is superb. Love- LOVE – the way this image looks; film grain immaculately reproduced with a total absence of age-related artifacts for a very smooth and satisfying visual presentation. The DTS 1.0 audio is a bit of a letdown – not terribly so – but not nearly as refined as the image. It sounds good, if not great – dialogue somewhat tinny at times. We get more mileage out of Paul Williams’ underscore, though it too lacks the spatial separation one might expect. Just so we are clear: I am not poo-pooing the absence of a re-envisioned 5.1 DTS. Foolhardy too, to compare apples to gorillas – if you get my meaning. I am merely stating for the record that in comparison to other similarly recorded mono tracks from the same vintage, this one slightly palls, sounding considerably thinner. Nothing thin or strident about the isolated score. We are well compensated by a thoroughly comprehensive commentary featuring Twilight Time alumni, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, herein accompanied by film historian, Lem Dobbs. Great stuff. Kirgo’s liner notes are, as ever, insightful and cherished – or rather, ought to be by every collector. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)