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Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

*****
1974

‘…a great tough-guy movie that drips with learned experience and hard-earned pathos…’

“The clock uncoils the working day, and he wakes up feeling his youth has gone away”. This line is quoted early in Michael Cimino’s surprisingly lyrical bank heist movie, something of a companion piece to the same year’s equally cherishable The Gravy Train. The speaker is Preacher, also known as Thunderbolt and played by Clint Eastwood. The response comes from his fellow drifter Lightfoot, (Jeff Bridges). “Is that a prayer?’ Lightfoot asks? ‘No, it’s a poem’ comes the matter-of-fact reply, and it is, by John Doherty. If you associate Cimino’s work with the overblown excess of Heaven’s Gate, the tightly-wound script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot should be something of a bolt from the blue; the same line of dialogue is ingeniously reversed at the film’s conclusion.

Eastwood was mastering his ‘one for them and one for me’ strategy by the mid-70’s, making Western hits for Warner brothers, plus building a Dirty Harry franchise and making his Malpaso imprint into a brand. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but it’s a film of surprising articulateness. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt is named after an armour-piercing shell that he uses to smash his way into unsuspecting bank vaults; he’s got the loot from a previous robbery stashed somewhere. But as our parable begins, Preacher is on the run, disguised as a man of the cloth, looking great in a crisp white collar over which his long hair spills, and with a pair of Jim Garrison specs to boot. Busted from his pulpit disguise (who would imagine that the church might the last refuge of a criminal?), Thunderbolt gets a timely rescue from Lightfoot, who has enterprisingly stolen a swanko sports car from a used-car dealership, and there begins a short but sweet friendship, or what in 2023 we call a bromance; ‘the lion shall lie down with the kid’ is a terse summary of what happens next.

‘With those clothes and your mouth, you could be a big man,’ offers Thunderbolt with heavy irony when Lightfoot accidentally steals a car-load of ladies frocks and dresses. And he’s right in a way; hooking up with hard-core crim Red Leary (George Kennedy) and his pal Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), Lightfoot ends up in drag as a diversion to the big heist. Cimino is sensitive to the differences between Leary and Lightfoot; old Leary has a myriad of conflicted sexual identity issues and latent violence, while Lightfoot is confident enough in himself to be a straight shooter, even in ladies clothes. There’s a brilliant bookend here when Lightfoot makes his seductive move, he’s framed by a screen door, exactly the same visual as we saw him seduced by a naked housewife earlier in the film. Lightfoot is a fast learner and a quick adapter, and that’s why Thunderbolt fears for his influence on his new friend; Thunderbolt knows that a cruel world has got plenty of poison in store for the unwary, and the advantages of youth are wasted on the young.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was, and still is, a great tough-guy movie that drips with learned experience and hard-earned pathos; look at the way Thunderbolt knowingly uses a belt to twist his wrenched arm back into his shoulder-socket as Lightfoot watches. Thunderbolt knows the map and the territory and sees the problems coming long before Lightfoot does, ‘Watch out for the dog sh*t,’ he advises his gauche aimigo as they walk along the shore together, or tersely advising ‘People with brass headlights are always nuts,’ before the driver who picks them up as hitch-hikers opens a boot jammed full of white rabbits and starts shooting them with a rifle. There’s a crazy Jake Busey cameo and a sweet Paul Williams song to enjoy as well. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot may not pass any kind of PC test today, it’s a down and dirty feature full of questionable characters and morality. But dig deeper, and there’s a profoundly moral story, a questioning of white male codes and a melancholy sadness about the state of the world, as evidenced by the tragic fate of all the characters who crash and burn by the side of the Montana highways in this unassuming yet unforgettable film.

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  1. Superb film. Really enjoyed it when it came out. Thank goodness nobody has been calling out the big gun as a phallic symbol, but there’s still time. Cimino set out his stall with this one.

    • It’s a big gun and no mistake. Only used once, and treated seriously; not like some 80’s copshow where people walk around firing these things with no recoil. Everyone even wears safety goggles when about to fire. This was great on tv back in the 80’s, but surprisingly enough, it’s still great now. On Prime UK for nowt.

  2. Did a double take at that header pic thinking Clint and Bridges were the same age. Thought Bridges was much younger, and he is. Saw this on TV a long time ago. Only remember the business with the rabbits for some reason.

    a belt to twists his wrenched arm

    • Clints first film was when Bridges was 6, so he’s the older voice here for sure.
      Thought you would be all over this one, one of the apex points of 70’s cinema IMHO.

      • Library has it in so might make it a rewatch. Gotta finish up my notes on this movie about a telephone in the basement that shouldn’t work but does. Should be some sort of authority on film I could find online that would warn me against things like this.

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