Director: Michael Cimino
Writer: Michael Cimino
Cinematographer: Frank Stanley
Producer: Robert Daley
by Jon Cvack
Up through the late 60s and up through the mid-70s, Hollywood produced a strange series cynical, though successful films - Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Easy Rider (1969), The French Connection (1971), Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), Mean Streets (1973), with 1974 having a full resurgence with The Parallax View, The Conversation, Chinatown, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and Woman Under the Influence. It’s no wonder that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot - released the same year - while moderately successful, has been smothered by its peers.
Not knowing Michael Cimino directed the film, I’m not sure where I heard about this film, though I’m fairly certain it must have been on a list of the greatest heist films. The film abides by a similar limpid structure as other road movies from the period. Not so much a lack of clarity, so much as having that indefinable growing pain as cinema drifted into modernity.
The film opens in a wide shot of a rural wheat field and moves on into a church where we see Clint Eastwood as a priest reading a sermon. Having no idea what this movie was about other than that it was well rated, I wasn’t sure whether to expect an action film per the likes of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry (1969) or Easy Rider, or a cerebral story along the lines of Five Easy Pieces (1970) or Scarecrow (1973). Ten minutes in and you realize the film is actually an action crime dramedy.
An assassin, Red Leary (George Kennedy), attempts to kill the preacher who we later learn is called Thunderbolt, who narrowly escapes and meets Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), who just moments before had stolen a badass muscle car. Lightfoot soon learns Thunderbolt is an infamous bank robber, and part of a disbanded gang who were neary busted; with Thunderbolt going into hiding as a preacher.
His fellow gang members are now trying to kill him, suspecting betrayal.
Soon the Leary and his timid sidekick Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) catch up to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, expecting to kill him but rather unite for a final strike against the same bank they failed to rob the first time. So begins one of the better prep and go heist sequences as we see them unload a 20 mm cannon to blast through the vault door and for Lightfoot to then dress up as a woman in order to seduce the security guard and tie him up.
The bank job itself goes by fine, but it’s when the crew decides to hide out in a local movie theater that film shifts to its most exciting sequence. Red and Eddie hop into the back of the car, but Red’s jacket hangs out the back, causing the cashier to think that the car is sneaking in people without paying. I’d have to check, but I don’t believe we see the cashier call the police. Instead we listen and watch the crew listen to the sirens close, standing in their positions, soon coming through the entrance where Thunderbolt takes off. After the police shoot Eddie, Red sneaks through the back seat and demands they quit. He tosses the body and kicks the absolute shit out of Lightstood, steals the car with the loot and takes all of the heat with him; later ending a brutal shootout and lethal shootout.
Thunderbolt & Lightfoot continue on through the night, eventually coming across a major stash of cash hidden in an old schoolhouse. Thunderbolt buys a car, and Lightfoot becomes increasingly delirious; soon losing the ability to speak and dies shortly after.
It’s an ending that matches the era - Thunderbolt is left alone in the middle of the country, alone, unsure of where he goes from there. The Graduate, The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry - all the films contain that Vietnam era cynicism. Two years in, I can only really name Death of Stalin and The Post as pure Trump Era cinema. The reasons could warrant an entire post, but a mixture of exhaustion and Trump’s self-satirizing might contribute to the problem. I also think that compared to over 55,000 conscripted young adults dying in a war most didn’t want to fight, there just isn’t the same need for catharsis. The older I get, the more this generation of cinema reflects a deeply dark period of American history; something we should be thankful for is far from where we are right now. These films express the hopelessness people sought to connect with. I often feel a melancholy when watching them, appreciative of how incredibly and unique they are; in some ways fortunate our greatest storytellers have not yet been jaded enough by the world around them. Not yet.
BELOW: Great opening
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