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Breaking the Bank ‘70s Style

June 1st, 2010 · 5 Comments

New Beverly marquee 1

In the month of June, Joe Valdez “takes over” the programming of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles with a series of double features on his favorite film themes. Joe is not a professional curator and may not even show potential as an amateur one, but comments and recommendations for future double features are welcome below.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 poster A Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 poster B

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Written by Michael Cimino
Produced by Robert Daley
115 minutes

For everyone who’s wished that Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges could have acted together in the same movie, the good news is that it’s called Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The GREAT news is that this screwball buddy caper road movie has everything that a fan of drive-in movies could want: bank robbery, fist fighting, fast cars and fast women. If those weren’t enough, Gary Busey (billed as Garey Busey) even shows up. The script by Michael Cimino came to Eastwood in 1972 courtesy their mutual reps at the William Morris Agency. Responding to the offbeat bent of the piece (“Michael must have written it in some hallucinative state” Eastwood joked to biographer Richard Schickel), Malpaso agreed to let Cimino — a Michigan State grad with an MFA in painting from Yale and a successful career directing commercials in New York — make his feature film debut.

One of the innumerable charms of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is that Cimino never seems in a hurry to go anywhere or prove anything here, putting the “idio” in “idiosyncratic” as if the Coen brothers were making a heist flick. Instead of being wed to pulp fiction, the material has a noble innocence to it. Filmed in the towns of Ulm, Fort Benton, Hobson, Augusta and Choteau in the Great Falls vicinity of Montana, it’s one half road movie and one half situation comedy, with four men who have nowhere else to go moving in together, taking day jobs and plotting the score of a lifetime. Whether a credit to the script or to the exuberance of 23-year-old Jeff Bridges, Clint Eastwood has never smiled in a movie as much as he does here. One of the few reflections of the time period it was made is a whimsical theme composed and sung by Paul Williams, “Where Do I Go From Here”.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 title card

At the rustic Spirit Lake Idaho Community Church, the sermon of John Doherty (Clint Eastwood) is rudely interrupted when a stranger opens fire and chases the pastor through a field of wheat. A white ’73 Pontiac Trans Am crosses the pastor’s path and he jumps in. The wheelman is a kid who just stole the car and gives the name Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). Watching the pastor pop his dislocated shoulder back in, the kid deduces that this is no ordinary clergyman. Stealing a ‘73 Buick Rivera, the pastor tires of grand theft auto and parts ways with Lightfoot, only to spot two more associates, bank robbers Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis). The pastor changes his mind about riding shotgun with Lightfoot and even accepts the company of two women (Catherine Bach, June Fairchild) the kid picks up in town.

After Red comes gunning for the duo, the pastor reveals that he’s a Korean War veteran answering to the name Thunderbolt. A bank robber by vocation, Thunderbolt punctured the vault of an armored car company with a cannon firing 20mm artillery shells; the mastermind of his gang hid the money behind the blackboard of an old schoolhouse, but upon his death, only Thunderbolt knows where the loot is stashed. Believing he ripped them off, Red and Goody want Thunderbolt dead, but he explains to them that the schoolhouse and the loot have vanished. Lightfoot infects the thieves with the idea of hitting the same armored company again. The four men move in together and take day jobs to raise seed money for the job, devised more as an antidote to boredom and an excuse to build camaraderie than anything else.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Jeff Bridges Clint Eastwood

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Catherine Bach Jeff Bridges June Fairchild

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Jeff Bridges Clint Eastwood

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Jeff Bridges Clint Eastwood

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Geoffrey Lewis George Kennedy

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 George Kennedy Clint Eastwood Geoffrey Lewis Jeff Bridges

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Clint Eastwood

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Jeff Bridges

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1974 Clint Eastwood Jeff Bridges

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 89 users: 86% for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: Not available

What do you say?

Tags: Cult favorite · Gangsters and hoodlums · Heist · Master and pupil · Road trip · Small town

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Jun 1, 2010 at 7:42 am

    It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen this movie, but I recall my parents really digging it and getting me to watch it when I was a teenager. I really enjoyed it and recall it having that easy, quirky charm you’re talking about. I really need to watch it again.

  • 2 Steve W // Jun 1, 2010 at 2:55 pm

    Very enjoyable little flick, a staple of the drive-in circuit when I was growing up in the late ’70s. Cimino’s visuals lift it well above the usual drive-in fare, and you’re right–the young Jeff Bridges seems to bring out Eastwood’s relaxed charm and impishness better than just about anyone ever has.

  • 3 kelsy // Jun 3, 2010 at 11:04 pm

    It’s when I read about movies like this that I wish I had more free time this summer to marathon watch stacks and stacks of movies.

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Jun 4, 2010 at 2:02 am

    Amanda: There must be a cool story there about your parents. I wonder if they spent a lot of time at the drive-in. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is definitely the type of flick that would have played there, yet I could also see this getting a retrospective at LACMA because of how exquisitely paced and photographed it is. Definitely worth another look. Thanks for commenting!

    Steve: Eastwood & Bridges were a dynamic duo and it’s too bad we didn’t see two or three pictures with them a la Wilder & Pryor. Bridges would have been great in Space Cowboys instead of Tommy Lee Jones, who doesn’t bring relaxed charm or impishness out of anything with two legs, including Eastwood. So cool you got to see Thunderbolt and Lightfoot at the drive-in.

    Kelsy: I can remember being knee high to a grasshopper or at least in my early 20s, wanting to watch every cool movie ever made. Don’t get in a hurry. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is not going anywhere. Thanks so much for commenting!

  • 5 Randy // Aug 19, 2010 at 4:43 am

    This is my favorite Eastwood film and one of the best examples of cinematography you will see.

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