Sunday, March 4, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974)

(US - 1974)

Written and directed by Michael Cimino.  Cast: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Bill McKinney, Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, Burton Gilliam, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott, Roy Jenson. (R, 115 mins)

Even before film critics and historians finally took him seriously after 1992's UNFORGIVEN, Clint Eastwood consistently took chances to show his versatility with offbeat departures and was always more than Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name.  Films like THE BEGUILED, PLAY MISTY FOR ME (both 1971), and BREEZY (1973), the latter directed by but not starring Eastwood, were atypical projects and the same can be said for 1974's character-driven road/buddy movie THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.  The film was a fairly big hit at the time (grossing $25 million, which is around $150 million in 2012 dollars), even though Eastwood reportedly wasn't happy with United Artists' handling of it, nor with the fact that co-star Jeff Bridges got all the attention as well as a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (he lost to THE GODFATHER PART II's Robert De Niro).  This was probably one of the earliest instances that led to Eastwood's tendency to control and backseat-drive the films he wasn't actually credited with directing.  He fired Philip Kaufman a few days into shooting THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES and took over directing it himself (leading to the DGA's "Eastwood Rule," which essentially forbids a producer, cast, or crew member of a movie from stepping in for a fired director), then notably clashed with mentor Don Siegel on 1979's ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, and relieved director Richard Tuggle of his duties early into shooting 1984's TIGHTROPE, taking over directing but reportedly keeping Tuggle on the set in order to appease the DGA (and does anyone really believe Buddy Van Horn was calling the shots on any of those 1980s Eastwood movies he's credited with directing?).  Eastwood's director on THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT was a debuting Michael Cimino, who co-wrote the 1973 DIRTY HARRY sequel MAGNUM FORCE.  Cimino went on to become the toast of Hollywood with 1978's THE DEER HUNTER before almost immediately morphing into an industry pariah with 1980's HEAVEN'S GATE.  Eastwood would get annoyed if Cimino wanted more than three takes, but he seemed to generally stay out of the first-time director's way.  With the exception of 1993's IN THE LINE OF FIRE, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and the only time in the last 40 years that Eastwood was just an actor-for-hire in a film he didn't produce, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is likely one of the last times he extended that courtesy to someone directing him.

Eastwood is Thunderbolt, a career thief and fugitive who's found by some vengeful cohorts who think he made off with the loot of a previous heist, when in fact, the place where he stashed the money was demolished, and Thunderbolt was never able to recover the money. While fleeing, he's picked up by amiable drifter Lightfoot (Bridges), who's in a Trans-Am that he just stole from used-car dealership.  The two become fast friends, and when two of Thunderbolt's associates--hot-tempered Red Leary (George Kennedy) and dumb Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis)--catch up with them, it's Lightfoot who hatches the plan that they all rob the same place again.

Eastwood and Bridges make a great team, and Cimino's script has a good amount of humor, especially when Kennedy and Lewis turn up later on.  It's not just Bridges who makes a huge impression--a low-key Eastwood manages to be upstaged by all three of his co-stars (Kennedy is hilarious when he tells an obnoxious brat "Look, kid...go fuck a duck").   The tone gets much more serious after the heist, leading to a downbeat, heartbreaking finale that would likely be changed if it were made today.  The film benefits from a lot of eccentric touches and recognizable character actors, like Bill McKinney as a crazy driver with a raccoon in the front seat and a trunk filled with rabbits, Dub Taylor as a cranky gas station attendant, and the sight of Kennedy and Lewis squeezed into a tiny ice cream truck.  I also like the way Thunderbolt and Lightfoot steal the car of a vacationing older couple and spend the rest of the film wearing the man's loud, garish old-guy shirts.

When THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT was released, critics praised Cimino's work as a writer and director and Cimino has often said that he wouldn't have a career without Eastwood's help.  TV airings throughout the 1980s continued to find the film new fans, but it's rarely mentioned today with Eastwood's best work.  It's in semi-regular rotation on MGM HD, but it doesn't turn up as part of any Eastwood marathons on TCM or AMC.  It was issued on DVD years ago, but is now inexplicably out of print and going for exorbitant amounts online.  I'd love to see this given the deluxe Criterion treatment--it's certainly worthy, both as an essential classic of the 1970s and proof that even then, Eastwood was a better actor than dismissive critics of the 1970s were crediting him.  And there was no doubt that a young Jeff Bridges, who already had THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, BAD COMPANY, and THE ICEMAN COMETH under his belt, was going on to great things.  Cimino never really did recover from the HEAVEN'S GATE debacle, and was fired from both FOOTLOOSE and THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE before finally returning with 1985's flawed-but-intermittently-great YEAR OF THE DRAGON.  Cimino, now 73, hasn't directed a feature film since 1996's barely-released SUNCHASER.  THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and THE DEER HUNTER both stand as brilliant intros to a potentially great career derailed by hype, hubris, self-indulgence, and bad press, though HEAVEN'S GATE's reputation has somewhat improved in the ensuing 32 years since it bankrupted United Artists.  There's really not much point in defending 1987's dreadful THE SICILIAN or his absurd 1990 remake of the Bogart classic DESPERATE HOURS, and I haven't seen SUNCHASER.  Cimino's place in film history is cemented, but primarily for the wrong reasons.  His flops and fiascos may outnumber his successes, but it's hard to argue with successes like THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and THE DEER HUNTER.  Perhaps it's time to reconsider Michael Cimino. Or at least give him a shot at making another film.


  1. This is our favorite post-DIRTY HARRY Eastwood flick, without question, although we still can't explain the Claudia Lennear cameo (and we're fans of hers, too). Peter Biskind's notorious review from Jump Cut, titled "Tightass and Cocksucker," is the type of analytical writing that should be taught in film schools.

  2. I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks!