By the early 1970’s, director Michael Cimino had already made a name for himself as a helmer of standout television commercials. At the time, Cimino had moved to Los Angeles from his native New York, to pursue a career in movies. As it happened, Cimino’s first major feature came about due to a perfect storm of factors. After the breakout success of Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER (1969), road movies had become all the rage. Cimino’s agent gave him the idea for a road/heist movie, and then partnered with a fellow agent at William Morris Agency to bring the idea to actor Clint Eastwood’s attention, who had earlier expressed interest in producing a road picture of his own.
Eastwood liked Cimino’s script, and intended to direct it himself. However, upon meeting Cimino, he was impressed with the young man’s confidence and relinquished the reigns, giving Cimino his big cinematic break. The final result was 1974’s THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, a lighthearted buddy movie/heist film that announced his arrival as a new, major talent in Hollywood.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT roots its story in the conventional tropes of the classic heist genre, but imbues the countercultural edge of films like EASY RIDER and Monte Hellman’s TWO LANE BLACKTOP (1971). Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) is introduced to us as a mild-mannered preacher in a rural Montana town. Imagine our surprise when, in the middle of his sermon, an armed thug enters the church and tries to kill him. Meanwhile, in another part of town, a young playboy drifter named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) steals a car right under the nose of a salesman at the dealership. These two men’s paths collide, and they end up getting along so well that they decide to keep each other company for a while.
When two men from Thunderbolt’s past—his ex crime partners Red Leary (George Kennedy) and Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis)—come back into his life with a debt to settle, he convinces them to join him in one last heist. They decide on an audacious plan—to rob the very same bank they heisted in their last job together. The four men move in together into a small trailer in Warsaw, Montana and take on cover jobs– all the while planning the heist of their lifetimes.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT benefits from some truly fantastic performances. While there’s nothing that truly challenges any one actor in terms of their reach or craft, Cimino nonetheless compels them to turn in high quality work. As a hard-edged man with a mysterious past, Eastwood’s Thunderbolt is intriguing and inherently watchable. It’s not too far of a cry from his career-making turn as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, but since when has Eastwood ever been noted for the diversity of his roles?
Additionally, a fresh-faced Jeff Bridges portrays the dandy-ish Lightfoot as relentlessly energetic and good-natured. He’s the optimistic foil to Eastwood’s grizzled cynic, which creates an endearing friendship dynamic. We get the notion that, had their partnership gone on longer, they might have become the next great crime duo, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
This is a very male-oriented story, and as such there isn’t much in the way of female supporting performances. George Kennedy, that lovable heavy from Stuart Rosenberg’s COOL HAND LUKE (1967), gives a layered performance as the film’s main antagonist. As a former friend and war buddy of Thunderbolt’s, his Red Leary is a conflicted antagonist motivated mainly by a sense of macho principle—he thinks his buddy burned him, so he wants retribution. He also makes the most of the surprising number of comedic opportunities afforded to him, and manages to steal almost every scene he’s in.
As more of a side note, a young Gary Busey cameos as Curly, Lightfoot’s co-worker at his landscaping cover job. He’s got the frame of a scrawny kid, but that creepy, bucktoothed stare of his is just as present as it’s always been. Despite only being in one scene, he somehow still gets prominent billing in the film’s opening credits.
One of Cimino’s strong points as a filmmaker has always been his visual eye. His striking compositions and attention to detail have given his films a unique, sumptuously cinematic patina. Working with Director of Photography Frank Stanley, Cimino effortlessly makes the transition from the claustrophobic television screen to the wide vistas of a 2.35:1 35mm film frame. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT was shot in Montana’s Big Sky Country, and Cimino takes full advantage of the location by using wide angle lenses to capture Montana’s striking mountain vistas in all their glory.
Cimino employs a natural, lifelike color scheme and prefers to frame his compositions wider and more symmetrical than most directors. Each background is distinct and lovingly rendered, from the moldy wood slats of a dingy motel to the snowcapped peaks of distant mountains. His studies in painting and architecture subtly inform images that deal in layers of perspective and an awareness of setting. The frame is packed with details that enrich the story, yet are unobtrusive. Much of these details create a distinctly American feel—a tone that Cimino would incorporate into his signature style.
Cimino’s camerawork is mostly classical, preferring to tell the story via static and dolly shots. However, more experimental techniques, like rack zooms, handheld takes, and moving point of view shots, point to a knack for innovating within the confines of time-honored cinematic boundaries. For example, Cimino and editor Ferris Webster employ a powerful cross-cutting technique during the heist sequence as a way to build tension and spread the action out. By going this route, Cimino pays homage to similar cross-cut sequences like the climatic baptism scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER(1972), as well as the racetrack heist scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s THE KILLING (1956). Although he references the masters who came before him by adopting this technique, his unique characterization and comedic timing gives the proceedings his individual stamp.
Dee Barton provides an appropriate, if not entirely memorable, musical score. Taking on a decidedly country “honkytonk” tone, it’s rolling, rambling nature is suitable for a lighthearted road film. Cimino also peppers the film with an eclectic mix of prerecorded tracks, starting with an austere church hymnal and going on to cover genres like folk and rock. Given the time period of its release, the musical landscape reads as hip and contemporary, and gives the film a distinctly “good old country boy” flavor.
Out of Cimino’s successful films (which unfortunately only make up a small percentage of his filmography), THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is curiously underrepresented. It’s a first-class effort that did well upon its release and paved the way for Cimino to make his crowning achievement, THE DEER HUNTER. Many storytelling devices that would become Cimino’s calling card make their appearance here—his geometrically-minded compositions, a preoccupation with Americana imagery, and the use of spirituality/religion/ritual to inform his characterization. Watching the film for the first time, after having seen some of his later works, I found that Cimino’s skill as a director was immediately apparent in his debut. His career may not be something to emulate, but his visual style most certainly is.
Perhaps it’s appropriate, given how Cimino’s own career has played out, that his films seem to have a subtext of sadness or nostalgia for a time gone by (or, alternatively, a time that never existed). There’s an underlying, subliminal current of loss to THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT that yearns for a more innocent time, when the land was pure and untouched. When cars had the freedom to go off the road and roam the countryside as they saw fit. When a criminal could disappear into a small Western town and remake himself into a model citizen.
It’s not a coincidence that the film’s final moments take place in an anachronistic, one-room country schoolhouse that’s been moved from its original site to a highway rest stop and now serves as a historical sideshow. For Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the times are a-changing—the landscape is changing under their feet and, just like that one-room schoolhouse, they’re quickly becoming relics in a world that no longer has any use for them.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is a striking debut—indeed, it’s one of Cimino’s very best films. I’d venture so far as to even say that it’s worthy of a spine number in the Criterion Collection, especially given its under-appreciation in the years since its release. With all the negativity surrounding his later works, it’s refreshing to go back and remind ourselves why we fell in love with him in the first place.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twilight Time.