A Consummate, Disquieting Road Movie
Though it opened 43 years ago this week, a certain movie that seemed quite emblematic of its era has later emerged as quite something else. Indeed, the venerated movie critic, historian and filmmaker wrote in 1996: “What the movie says in its quick-step, sidelong sort of way is that the American center, if there ever was one, has not held and, perhaps more important, that ordinary people know it – or, rather, in their inarticulate way sense it. Cast loose from their traditional moorings they drift into misdirected rage and paranoia.” Sound like any contemporary era we know? In his penetrating biography Clint Eastwood, Schickel says: “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) is full of genre references – among them the plotting and execution of a complex, high-stakes robbery, the unlikely bonding of the title buddies, played respectively by Clint and Jeff Bridges, and the freewheeling encounters with eccentric characters that mark the typical road movie. But [writer-director] Michael Cimino’s work is more a commentary on, rather than, a redeployment of, genre conventions. It is also a meditation on American maleness in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, a critique of certain American traditions normally unquestioned in movies of this kind, and at its best, an extended Looney Tunes – loose, shaggy, crammed with whacked-out incidents that arise out of nowhere and send us off on astonishing vectors.” Another Eastwood chronicler, Clint: The Life and Legend author Patrick McGilligan, reinforces the thought: “If there is one film of Clint’s from the 1970s that stands up to repeated viewings, it is [this]…consummate caper film, a disquieting buddy-buddy story, a rich acting and character contrast. For Cimino, playing a character of puzzling, contradictory qualities – a man, like himself, at once carefree and driven – Clint was never better suited to a part. He was never more in command of that country-boy diffidence he liked to project, and his performance as Thunderbolt reminded skeptics that he could act. Bridges, who has carved a spectacular career out of playing hollow hunks, ended up giving a dark, uninhibited performance as the not-so-happy-go-lucky drifter whose dream is to make the big score and buy a Cadillac. Dolled up as Clint’s ‘date,’ Bridges is unforgettable during the bank heist at the film’s climax, a sequence which begins as high suspense and veers towards comedy and tragedy.”From its opening sequence that brings together bogus preacher Eastwood fleeing from two gun-toting hot-headed pursuers (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis as Thunderbolt’s former robbery confederates) and hitching a ride with Lightfoot in a stolen Firebird, the tone of side-eye humor and unexpected violence is quickly established, while the scenic openness of Montana locations around Great Falls and the smaller towns of Ulm, Hobson, Fort Benton, August and Choteau provide widescreen Panavision moments of visual beauty and larky possibility. (In this environment, the initially nervous and upset Bridges, frazzled that he wasn’t up to the demands of the part, confronted Cimino, who, as Schickel recounted and Bridges confirmed, reportedly told him, “You are that guy. There’s nobody else who’s going to be that character, so whatever you do is appropriate. You don’t have to worry about trying to emulate somebody else, because you’re it, you’re the prototype,” which Bridges found “very liberating.”) Brought in on time and under budget following a July-December 1973 shoot, the picture went out as the newest Eastwood action movie to substantial if not blockbuster business. In hindsight, there was much more to savor, and audiences through the decades have responded in kind, way beyond the expected weaponry and wisecracks in easy view. There’s the lunatic vagrant (an outrageous Bill McKinney) who offers Thunderbolt and Lightfoot a ride in his deathtrap of a jalopy (complete with caged raccoon in the passenger seat). There are the vignettes of the crooks driving ice cream trucks to check out the escape route of the heist they’re planning, and Kennedy’s profane response to the boy who persists in requesting a flavor not in stock. And also, when Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seek female sexual companionship, there’s character revelation and commentary that point up generational divides and prompt laughter tinged with melancholy. It’s a ramble of no great importance – and not much was conferred on it in 1974 – but somehow, in its toughness, thoughtfulness and the creative stimulus it gave to several cinematic careers, it resonates deeply and somewhat mightily now. Travel down Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s “astonishing vectors” on Twilight Time’s lovely hi-def Blu-ray.