The Distractions of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
To eminent film critic and Clint Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) is “possibly the most forgotten of Clint’s better movies…a loose, wry, genre blend – a road movie, a buddy film and a caper comedy that ultimately touches on the tragic.” But he also considered writer/director Michael Cimino’s first time in the director’s chair something much deeper. “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 into astonishing vectors.” Sounds like a candidate for one of the screen gems of a decade when moviemakers made personal and unexpectedly profound stories about ordinary people at a crossroads and how they adapt. Eastwood and Jeff Bridges amiably and touchingly inhabit the title roles, the veteran thief Thunderbolt and younger protégé Lightfoot, who try to collaborate with Thunderbolt’s brutal ex-confederates (the ideally cast George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) on one last, audacious heist that should pay off to everyone’s satisfaction. In its improvisational feel that enlarges to embrace a circle of oddball characters and situations like Bill McKinney’s raccoon and rabbit hoarder, Gary Busey’s wacko confederate and Lightfoot’s impersonation of a flirty blonde to distract a security guard, welded together with the precision and knowhow that go into the execution of a brazen robbery, it seems like they’ll carry it off. But Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s strength lies in its laid-back detours, comical sidebars and perilous reversals. And Schickel adds another acute observation that remains true 42 years later: “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.” It packs a lot of firepower in its richness of characters, open-country Montana settings and determination to turn what was expected of a typical (at the time) Eastwood movie on its ear. The star himself simplified matters a bit when he told Schickel: “I just liked the oddness, the crazy characters…Michael Cimino must have written it in some hallucinative state.” But the dexterous, off-kilter handling of light and dark, just like we all experience in ordinary, everyday lives, is what makes Thunderbolt and Lightfoot a treasure. Although its box-office was modest and its critical appreciation at the time was only moderate (Bridges’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar® nomination being a singular distinction), it genuinely packs staying power and truly earns its place among the best work its principals have ever done. Following a sold-out initial run two years ago, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot cruises back onto Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray April 12. Preorders opens March 30.