Tuesday October 05, 2021
Movie Review: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
You can’t get much more ’70s than this.
It’s a road movie about two mismatched grifters, filmed on location in the small towns of Montana, with dusty car chases, a drive-in movie, nudity and misogyny, and a plaintive Paul Williams song on the soundtrack. The heist goes wrong and no one wins. The ending is downbeat as the era required.
This was Michael Cimino’s directing debut. His second film, “The Deer Hunter,” would win five Oscars, including best picture and director. His third was “Heaven’s Gate,” and there went his career—along with movie studios’ love/tolerance of auteur directors. That probably would’ve gone away anyway, when movies like “Jaws” and “Star Wars” showed the path, but “Heaven’s Gate” didn’t help. Cimino got to do this one because Clint Eastwood liked his screenwriting for “Magnum Force,” the second Dirty Harry movie, released a year earlier, and basically said “Have a go at it, kid.” Apparently Eastwood wanted to do a road movie.
The inspiration for the film is about as far afield from a ’70s road movie as you can get: a 1955 Douglas Sirk romance/comedy, “Captain Lightfoot,” starring Rock Hudson as the titular Lightfoot and Jeff Morrow as Captain Thunderbolt, a pair of Irish scallywags who have various adventures in 1815. But if you dig a little, there’s a connection of sorts. “Captain Lightfoot” was written by, and based upon a novel by, W.R. Burnett, who basically created the modern gangster tale (“Little Caesar”), and the modern heist tale (“The Asphalt Jungle”), and whose screenwriting credits include 1932’s “The Beast of the City,” starring Walter Huston as a police chief who takes the law into his own hands. That movie is often cited as a forerunner to, yes, “Dirty Harry.”
Bigger than ever
I’m glad I finally got around to watching “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” It’s one of those movies my cooler friends saw as kids and talked up all the way through high school. I avoided it for some reason.
It’s good. There’s artistry here. Some of the shots are just beautiful, and the main relationship is fun and off kilter. I love George Kennedy’s line by the river, “Boy, do I feel old,” as he sits there, crumpled. Clint plays a Clint character, but looser than normal. Apparently that was one of Cimino’s directives to Jeff Bridges: Keep Clint laughing.
Bridges would be the film’s only Oscar nomination, for supporting, and I assume he got this because of the scenes near the end, when Lightfoot is kicked in the head and begins suffering the effects of a traumatic brain injury. He starts slurring his words, his arm goes numb, and half his face goes slack. It’s impressive. Even so, for most of the film, I found Lightfoot annoying. He thinks he’s funnier than he is, wilder than he is. He’s just too much. When he spots that female motorcyclist and asks about her hot pants, and, mid-ride, she takes out a hammer and starts pounding dents into his truck, then rides off giving him the finger, he shouts, “You freak!” A second later he adds: “I love you, come back!” I just didn’t buy it. Or care for it. I don’t think there’s many guys like that, and the guys that are kind of like that I find boring.
Most of the movie is itinerant, going from place to place seemingly without reason. It opens on a small one-room church, where, from outside, we hear the singing of a hymn, even as a big American car drives by then doubles back. The driver is Red Leary (Kennedy), who enters the church and starts shooting at the preacher (Eastwood, a grifter in glasses and greased hair), who flees through nearby cornfields. At the same time, elsewhere, Lightfoot steals a white Trans-Am off a used-car lot, and this is our meet-cute for the title characters: Thunderbolt flags down Lightfoot’s car, then hangs on for dear life.
Why do they stick together? I guess the kid comes to admire Eastwood’s Korean war heroism, revealed by and by, while the kid amuses Eastwood. He likes his joie de vivre. They steal a car from a bickering middle-class couple at a gas station, shack up with two girls at a motel (one is Catherine Bach), eat at a diner. Red and his affable partner Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis) keep showing up: at a bus station, shooting at them outside the diner, and then in the backseat of their car outside a schoolhouse. How does Red keep finding them? No explanation. He's just there. Of all the places to be, he guesses right, again and again. This is one of the many reasons I’d make a bad Hollywood screenwriter: I want explanations for what 95% of the audience doesn’t even think about. Just keep it moving, kid.
After Red beats up Lightfoot, and Thunderbolt beats up Red, we get the full story to this seeming itinerancy. Years earlier, Red and Thunderbolt were part of a gang that pulled a successful bank robbery, but then: 1) their gang leader died; 2) the press reported the money had been found; 3) Red went to prison on an earlier charge and assumed Thunderbolt betrayed him. He’s finally set straight on this by the ass-whooping, I guess, and intrigued to learn the money was never found, then bummed that they stashed it in a one-room schoolhouse that no longer exists. A new, modern schoolhouse had been built in its place.
It’s the kid who figures out the next step and the rest of the movie. Why not just rob the bank all over again? They know it worked once. Just do it again. Both Thunderbolt and Eddie are initially amused at the thought—particularly since Red thinks it’s screwy—but then realize, “Yeah … Why not?”
To get the money for supplies, they take working class/service sector jobs: Eastwood as garage mechanic, the kid as landscaper, Red as janitor, Eddie as ice cream vendor. Among the things they buy? A 20 millimeter Oerlikon cannon to bust through a wall. It’s both used by Thunderbolt and how he got his nickname. And though it’s a small part of the film, it’s also all over the movie posters. You thought a Magnum .44 was big? Check this shit out. It’s the movie’s unspoken tagline: Eastwood’s dick is back, and it’s bigger than ever!
Buying the serendiptiy
What really stands out, 50 years later, is the misogyny. This is the era after the sexual revolution but before women’s lib went mainstream—or before most men took a long dark look at themselves—so women are just there to ogle and fuck and forget. Their bodies are there to be monetized by Hollywood. On the landscaping job, a housewife teases/taunts Lightfoot by standing in front of him (and us) stark naked. There’s Catherine Bach and her friend, who, post-coital, cries rape when Eastwood won’t give her a ride home. There’s rape jokes. Our two heroes ogle a waitress’ ass and Red ogles two teens in the act. That female motorcycle rider had the right idea.
The second heist works but the attempt to avoid detection in a drive-in goes awry when the ticket lady hears Red and Eddie in the trunk and call the cops. I assume she thinks they’re trying to sneak into the drive-in—as we did as teenagers? For some reason, the cops put two and two together rather quickly. Cue car chase and car crashes. The affable Eddie is shot and pushed out of the trunk by the increasingly nasty Red, who knocks out our title characters and takes the money. He kicks Lightfoot several times in the head for good measure, which is what leads to the brain damage. But Red gets his. Trying to escape, he crashes into a dept. store and runs into the vicious dogs he’d heard about as a janitor. They tear him apart.
As for our heroes? Back to itinerancy. They hitch rides and wander around, Lightfoot increasingly addled. Then we get a kind of glorious moment: In the middle of nowhere, they come across the one-room schoolhouse, which had been relocated as a national landmark, and find the original bank money behind the blackboard. Sure, you have to buy the serendipity of it all, not to mention that in moving the schoolhouse the blackboard was never moved or fell off. But it’s a fun idea: It’s not gone, it’s a landmark. Thunderbolt then buys the Cadillac he always wanted and in the manner he wanted (with cash), but at this point it’s too late for Lightfoot. He dies in the cradle of Thunderbolt’s arm. I couldn’t help but think of “Midnight Cowboy.” Cue Paul Williams.
The movie did well at the box office—17th-best for the year—but Eastwood felt it should’ve done better and blamed United Artists’ promotional campaign and never worked with them again. I’ve also read he felt upstaged by Bridges and felt he too deserved an Oscar nomination. To which I'd said: no. You're good, Clint, but not Oscar good. A man’s got to know his limitations.