Sandwiched between Magnum Force and The Eiger Sanction – two fairly conventional pictures in Clint Eastwood’s filmography – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is one of the regular curveballs the star would pitch to his audience during the height of his fame in front of the lens (in my opinion few major film stars have such understanding and mastery of their star image, and fewer still are so eager to subvert it).
The film’s poster presents it as a heist thriller with the tag line ‘He has exactly seven minutes to get rich quick’. In the painted poster image Clint is dressed in none-more seventies tan slacks and a shirt with a collar seemingly based on Albatross wings. Somehow he makes this hideous gear look effortlessly cool. Eastwood is smoking a cigar and standing nonchalantly with one foot resting on a MASSIVE canon. It’s a hilariously virile and phallic image that keys the audience into certain expectations that are not met. Rather than a high-octane action film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a rambling road movie with a loose plot that takes at least half an hour to come into focus.
In fact, if rumours are to be believed, Eastwood was so incensed at United Artists’ marketing of the picture that he refused to work for the studio again. If so then Eastwood truly had the last laugh. First time director Michael Cimino has credited the star (who was initially going to direct himself) with responsibility for his entire career. The studio was allegedly resistant towards taking a chance on an untried kid but in Cimino’s account Eastwood leveraged his star power to get him the gig. Some years later the director would bankrupt the studio almost single handed with the ridiculous production excesses of his epic western folly Heaven’s Gate (something Eastwood would never have tolerated).
A beat up 1950s Chevy kicks up dust as it approaches a small church. The driver exits, squints in the sun and then walks into the middle of a service. Without warning he pulls out an automatic pistol and begins firing at the minister (Eastwood). Meanwhile leather trousered youth Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) has stolen a Trans-am off a dealer’s forecourt and is speeding away from the scene of his crime. As the ‘minister’ is pursued across the fields he attempts to flag down the sports car, causing Lightfoot to lose control and take out the gunman. The pair flee together and strike up an uneasy friendship.
Of course Clint’s character is no man of God, but in fact a safecracker with the nickname Thunderbolt (due to his use of artillery to crack vaults). Thunderbolt is trying to evade the attentions of some former associates who believe he has absconded with the haul from an earlier job. In fact he hasn’t, the money was hidden but the hiding place appears to have been demolished.
It should be no real surprise that this story is leading to another heist, involving the former cronies a thuggish heavy Red (George Kennedy) and a harmless dolt of a driver Eddie (the always wonderful Geoffrey Lewis). If the narrative sounds conventional, it is, but it isn’t really the focus. The film is a character piece about the (platonic) bonds that bind men together. Lightfoot is a drifter, escaping a troubled childhood. Thunderbolt is a veteran of Korea, and a man who has become lost, rootless, lacking purpose. A classic Eastwood character in other words. This is another of the ‘Ronin’ type characters Eastwood excels at.
The two men find in each other something that is missing in their lives. Lightfoot finds a mentor (in criminality) and a father figure, the older man a pupil and surrogate son. Women do not really get a look in, the outlaw life does not allow for such relationships. The prime antagonist, the bitter and cruel Red, has a somewhat similar mentor/child relationship with Eddie (a borderline simpleton). This relationship is an abusive mirror of the central pair. Threatened by Lightfoot’s free spirited ways Red vows to ‘get the kid’.
Lightfoot is a somewhat feminised character; he takes pleasure in both sexually exciting Red with tales of sexual exploits with older woman, then enraging him with acts of camp provocation. Jeff Bridges looks incredibly young and so beautiful he practically glows like a cherub in a Renaissance painting. He is great in the role, and received the film’s only Academy Award nomination. Clint is also on terrific form, but his minimal style of acting was never fashionable with most contemporary critics until Unforgiven caused the a massive shift in the critical consensus.
Despite its 18 certificate (gained presumably for some nudity and sexual humiliation during a home invasion sequence) this is not a particularly violent film, but it has a bleakness of tone in the last act that comes as a rude shock following the easy going shenanigans of the first two. This is a characteristic of many US films of the period. The template being Dennis Hopper’s ground-breaking Easy Rider (1969) but it can also be found in films like the underappreciated Electra Glide in Blue (1973).
Cimino directs with an economy that would disastrously desert him later in his career. His screenplay is deceptively finely crafted, while the film appears somewhat ramshackle, key lines are peppered throughout the film cleverly foreshadowing and setting up events that follow. There is also particular pleasure to be had in the Montana locations, seventies fashions and implausible automobiles with insanely wide turning circles and an inability to corner at speed.
This is definitely a film for lovers of Americana.
This review previously appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk/