From the parallel opening sequences of Clint Eastwood as a fake reverend and Jeff Bridges slickering a used car salesman, we savvy film folk know instantly that 1974's THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios, Inc., is a movie about the pros and cons (mostly cons) of disguise.
Indeed, this starling directorial debut of cinema's notorious enfant terrible Michael Cimino (who also penned the screenplay) never stops playing with this theme. Throughout the course of this odyssey of golden fleecing the various characters resort to numerous masquerades, including building contractors, factory workers, ice-cream salesmen and even, in Bridges’ case, a cross-dresser.
Hey, folks, this ain't your dumb Seventies action picture; well, it is – but that's only on a superficial level. Careful analytical observation reveals much more than meets the peepers. Truth be told, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is an incredibly modern motion picture – deadly serious in its sadistically sardonic view of post-Viet Nam America. For one thing, the pic unveils the country's growing obsession with gun culture; everybody seems to matter-of-factly be packing. Firepower supremacy has never been so easily and effortlessly obtained or attained. Even the simplicity with which the pic's quartet of thieves purchase and construct a high-tech mega-cannon (a weapon which I'm convinced is even illegal for the military to own) is a feat performed with t'aint-nuthin'-to-it nonchalance. Violence has become liberty's enviable calling card, never more defined as when Bridges' attempt to woo a beauteous biker is stymied by her literally hammering his van. “I think I love you!” he yells with emotion worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet...or Warren Beatty looking into a mirror.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT chronicles the misadventures of the two title teammates and their search for hidden loot (stolen years earlier) supposedly safely ensconced in a little red rural schoolhouse. But, alas, the schoolhouse no longer exists. Now, in a perfect world (the adage and not that other Eastwood picture), that would be the end of it, save two other participants in the robbery (vicious maniac George Kennedy and his goofy sidekick Geoffrey Lewis) believe otherwise. They think Clint's been holding out; to appease the murderous buffoons, the four embark on a new heist, an unholy partnership if ever there was one.
How this is achieved becomes the complex multi-leveled narrative for this vastly underrated dissection of what we laughingly call the values system.
There are numerous standout sequences in this epic thug-of-war, but three which I must mention. The robbery of a middle-aged couple's car is of note, as the husband is a traveling apparel salesman. And what can be worse than stealing the “happening” wardrobe from someone residing in the mid-1970s? The subsequent shots of Eastwood and Bridges, adorned in various examples of Gerald Ford-era threads, comprise the worst Hollywood montage of sartorial splendor since the Oscars.
Two remaining segments are firmly etched in my memory from the time I originally saw this movie in a 42nd grindhouse (where, I believe it was paired with a battered print of Carlo Lizzani’s 1966 spaghetti western The Hills Run Red; talk about win/win!). First, there's the celebrated scene of Kennedy and Lewis as bad humor ice cream hustlers; when a precocious bespectacled lad questions their selection, an enraged Kennedy growls back “Fuck-a-duck!” This brought the full-house to its knees back in 1974, as the audience exploded with laughter. According to Cimino, it did the same during filming resulting in multiple takes (as the cast and crew couldn't stop breaking up). Dagnabbit, we be so refined! Ah, screw it, I still think it's funny.
The second portion I so vividly recall was the bit where hitchhiking Eastwood and Bridges hook up with a pickup-driving redneck. In keeping with the scenario's cruel intentions, this country boy is electroshock light years far removed from the accommodating Joads of yore. LSS, he's roaring psychopath, prone to a-hootin' an' a-hollerin' horrific threats; this becomes especially frightening when he backs up his tirades by releasing a trunk full of white rabbits, which he promptly begins to fire upon (and, oh, did we mention his rabid raccoon?). This initially had me shamefully double-taking more than Alan Hale. It apparently had a likewise effect on Cimino and Eastwood, as the cracker's rhetoric, freakishly spouted by the great Bill McKinney, was largely improvised (McKinney was duly rewarded by becoming a member of Eastwood's stock company, appearing in another seven popcorn-munchers).
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT’s male camaraderie often plays like a May-December Valentine, indicative of a bromance a la Howard Hawks. Their Bonnie and Clyde respect for each other and their “craft” is yet another unusual aspect of this unusual bloody-buddy excursion, again far transcending a surface assessment that it's merely a Larry the Cable Guy version of The Ladykillers. For me, the primary attraction was the title itself – recalling the famed Irish legend of authentic 19th-century rogue captains Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; to be precise, I was essentially intrigued less by the historical connection and more of the cinematic nod to Douglas Sirk's Captain Lightfoot, a 1955 CinemaScope adventure, costarring Rock Hudson and Jeff Morrow (which I champion to the hilt). Suffice to say, Cimino has loaded the 114 minute running time with a plethora of movie references and in-jokes.
Eastwood, known for his generosity as an actor and superstar, early-on gave Cimino the greenlight to toss the picture to the youthful Bridges. It paid off, garnering the thespian pup a Best Supporting Actor nomination (extremely unusual for a movie of this type). Interestingly enough, Cimino recalled that Bridges gave him the only heebie-jeebie experience in the production. The night before filming began a nervous Bridges approached the novice director, insisting that he be allowed to bow out...that he was unsure whether or not he could perform the task. Cimino, in a bravado performance, refused to accept, finally convincing the actor that he WAS that character, that it was written for him...that no one else could do it justice. Feeling his confidence restored, Bridges returned to his bed; Cimino ran to the bathroom, where he spent the tail end of the wee hours throwing up in anxiety-fueled insecurity.
Otherwise the filming went fairly smoothly and quickly – two standard Eastwood prerequisites. Cimino does admit that several times while on location Eastwood would question the camera set-ups. “Hey, don't you think it would be better to maybe shoot it from this angle?” The director would ponder the suggestion, and reply with a diplomatic, “That would be good, but I kinda had it worked out this way.” Clint would smile, nod and move on – no doubt a test to keep the filmmaker in check (and one that Philip Kaufman would later, for this and many other reasons, fail). Of course, part of Eastwood's charm is his unique strangeness. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT would be the first Eastwood picture where the star repeatedly smiled, thus letting down his patented expressionless demeanor (which, of course, would add to the show's obsession with disguises). Apparently, this extended to a Denver sneak screening, where, in order to view the movie incognito, Eastwood, rather than duck in after the lights went down, attended wearing a Groucho mask.
Eastwood was pleased enough with THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT to offer its writer-director a multi-picture deal. Cimino graciously turned him down, preferring to go his own way – paving the path to The Deer Hunter and (insert foreboding music here) Heaven's Gate.
The reviews for THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT were modestly supportive (as if the critics almost got it), although, not surprisingly, some, like Rex Reed, savaged it mercilessly (“a demented exercise in Hollywood hackery”).
What particularly irked Eastwood, who coproduced the THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT through his Malpaso company, was UA's handling of the picture. They obviously didn't get it – treating the end result like just another nabe actioner. He vowed he would never make another movie for the studio (a promise he has fastidiously kept).
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT demands discussion, as it's likely the best quality you'll ever see on this title. Back in 1974, the movie looked to me like just another example of the deteriorating attention to cinematography. Even though the Panavisioned framing of Frank Stanley concurrently depicted a bleak, but still startling Montana landscape, the DeLuxe hues highlighted what I then referred to as Civil War Color (everything rendered in either blue or gray). While I'm sure the Times Square theater wasn't providing projection indicative of the best of industry standards, I simply sloughed it off to “the way it is from now on,” and was happy to merely survive the afternoon without someone sticking a shiv in my side. This new 1080p transfer is a sleek, honey of a ride (not unlike Bridges' convertible), crystal-clear with often praiseworthy displays of color and tone. I mean it isn't Technicolor, but it isn't Drecknacolor either. Hey, you wanna know what I'm talking about – access the trailer; that's pretty much the way I remember my Deuce movies! The mono track is fine, and nicely replicates the jazzy sound of Clint fave Dee Barton's score (available as a separate IST). For those relishing further background info on this pic, there's a rather enticing second audio commentary by flicker scholars Julie Kirgo, Nick Redman and Lem Dobbs. And if that's not enough for you, you can – well, what was it George Kennedy said...?
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA. Limited Edition of 3000. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Inc. SRP: $29.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment: www.screenarchives.com