Eastwood: Thunderbolt & Lightfoot

Here we continue the Clint Eastwood season with yet another one of my childhood favourites (yes, I know it’s not really a suitable movie to have watched as a kid, but go take it up with my dad). Written and Directed by a pre The Deer Hunter Michael Cimino, we have Clint in an unfamiliar genre (road movie), and in rare(ish) ensemble mode.

This is the movie, that had I been able to swing it; would have been my 50th review for Filmwerk, however a last minute decision to take on the Tintin movie soundtrack album, sent it out of whack by one. Oh well.

As I mentioned in my piece on The Good, The Bad & The Ugly; when the Clint Eastwood series of retrospectives was announced, I was just foaming at the mouth to write about some of my favourites. In a bizarre example that underlines the fact that Thunderbolt & Lightfoot seems to be one of those moderately successful Eastwood movies that everyone forgets about, and many haven’t even seen; I forgot to request to cover it. Luckily, I came to my senses very quickly during the initial scheduling out of all the titles with the Editor; and managed to rectify the issue and claim the movie for review. Amazing.

As I said, this is one of those movies that when talking to the common or garden Eastwood fan, can sometimes exact a somewhat blank expression. Clint, like Stallone; has long been associated with a couple of characters and film series that go beyond merely successful into true ‘household name’ status. Everyone has heard of Dirty Harry, even though the films themselves (even the relatively recent ‘The Dead Pool‘), are of a different age. Many people have heard of them even if they’ve never seen them. Such is the power of movies or characters that infect popular culture. I think this also has the added effect of making many of the ‘other’ films a little more anonymous further down the line. Weirdly, unlike some of Clint’s other less well known movies from the 60’s and 70’s, this one does get aired on TV from time to time even now.

Released in 1974, It is of course far too old for me to have seen either at the flix, or probably even on first screening on British TV, but I certainly saw it a number of times at a very young age, probably somewhere towards the end of the 1970s. Again, this would have been with my father no doubt on one of those nights where the old softie let me stay up late past bedtime. I have subsequently seen it many additional times as an adult over the years, and know it well enough to write maybe two thirds of this retrospective prior to sitting down and watching it on DVD (which I have bought specifically, having never previously owned the film). It’s one of those movies that I just can’t not watch if I stumble upon it on TV. It’s magnetic, compulsive viewing for this Eastwood fan, and if I’m honest; I’m not altogether sure why. It is certainly this film, coupled with Stay Hungry (simultaneously introducing me to a certain large Austrian Oak) that first turned me on to Jeff Bridges, who would become a lifelong favourite actor of mine (although I own very few of his movies on DVD for no apparent reason I can fathom), so that’s certainly part of it.

But first things first, as I’m in danger of getting a little ahead of myself here.

For those that don’t know the film (and again, I suspect there are many), It’s a road movie, a heist movie, a buddy movie and a damn cool ride all rolled into one. It has comedy, tragedy, cars, action and violence. We see Clint again stepping outside of his ‘one man band’ comfort zone. Never a massive fan of ensemble movies, he and Bridges nevertheless chew up screen time together beautifully as the title characters. They are in some ways almost the same guy fifteen or twenty years (and a war), apart, and after a very originally staged chance and rather insane high octane introduction to each other; quickly form a strong bond. Reading up on the rumours and gossip available about this movie, it would seem that Eastwood was not happy about Bridges overshadowing him and stealing scenes. There are yet further rumours that Eastwood was rather pissed that young Bridges got an Oscar Nom for his role, and thought he should also have received one. I’m not altogether convinced about the reliability of some of this ‘information’, as it seems quite out of character to me, and definitely lacking in context. I like to think Clint was above such ego-crap and safe in his own skin even then. Whatever the truth of the matter was; both leads and the hitherto unmentioned two supporting characters of Red and Goody (George Kennedy, and Geoffrey Lewis respectively, playing Clint’s former bank robbing gang colleagues), were on top notch form and worked together onscreen beautifully, each man allowed to shine doing what they do.

This is key actually, as the story has no major female characters to complicate the evolving relationships between the men. Don’t misconstrue this as any kind of chauvinistic bullshit, but I like this aspect a lot. It reminds me of John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing‘ in the sense that the dynamics that exist between the male characters are not complicated or compromised by the presence of women. Obviously, in The Thing, there are no women at all. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot does have female characters of course, but they are either sex object playthings, neurotic distractions or middle aged comedy characters, and all are intentionally kept so brief and insubstantial as to not interfere in the various man dynamics being played out.

Speaking of Sex objects, special mention must be made (simply because she’s so very lovely, and would become famous a few years later) of good time girl Melody, played by Daisy Duke herself, the delectable and criminally underused Catherine Bach. She makes such a charismatic impression, that I really thought her character was gonna hang around a little longer, but alas it was not to be, and not long after one of my favourite lines in the movie “Why walk, when you can ride?”; she’s gone.

Attitudes to women here are in general, very of their time and date the movie quite a bit, but let’s move on.


At this point in the proceedings, it can’t have escaped your notice dear reader that I still haven’t found the right time to actually tell you what the film is about, in terms of a synopsis of sorts I mean. This is not intentional, but merely a resultant construct of being more interested in discussing other things while simultaneously lacking the impetus to try and summarise what is at it’s core, a simple plot.

Naturally, as this is a retrospective of a forty year old movie, plot synopsis is not the necessity it is in a standard new release review; most folks reading this would have seen it already right? Maybe not, who knows.

Here’s the briefest of bullet point sum ups for you:

  • Youngblood drifter (Lightfoot) steals Trans-Am
  • Literally runs into a Preacher running for his life from unknown pursuer and escapes
  • Preacher and Lightfoot decide to hook up and be buddies
  • Turns out Preacher is an ex-bank robber ‘Thunderbolt’ (a rather infamous one)
  • Turns out pursuers are Thunderbolt’s ex-bank robber pals who think he double crossed them on last job (he didn’t, and money was never found)
  • After a bit of chasing, catching, rough-housing and ‘at gunpoint’ explaining, Thunderbolt, Lightfoot and ex-bank robber buddies (Red and Goody), decide to hook up to pull exact same job as before.
  • Relationship equilibrium between the four men is very uneasy during protracted planning stage of heist
  • They pull the job but…
  • Things go awry afterwards, and Lightfoot takes a terrible beating from Red
  • Red and Goody are killed while being pursued by cops
  • Thunderbolt and Lightfoot get away un-suspected
  • They find the money from the first Heist
  • They buy brand new Cadillac convertable, and hit the road
  • Lightfoot dies from symptoms related to the heavy beating he received from Red
  • Thunderbolt cruises off into the sunset unsure of his future


So there you go, it’s pretty much all there.

It’s a fine film, and still a joy to watch. Bridges’ performance is wonderfully vibrant and young, while at the same time heavily laced with the disillusionment of post summer of love American youth culture. His trademark little ticks, and kooky body performance are in full effect. I can sort of understand why a potential ‘scene stealing’ problem would arise between Clint and Bridges, they are in so many ways polar opposites. But again, I see this as a strength, not a weakness; Clint is just so cool and magnetic in his own business that I just don’t see an imbalance at all. Quite the opposite in fact. For me the film makes lemons into lemonade. Clint looks considerably more buffed, lean and tanned than in say ‘Play Misty For Me‘ which I just watched (retrospective can be found here), and cuts quite a dash as the ‘been there seen it and done it’ Korean war veteran and safecracker exraordinaire. He sports a nice line in fitted short-sleeved sports shirts too! It doesn’t matter that Bridges is constantly ‘acting’ and Clint is sometimes left in shot seemingly just hanging about. It works.

I love the way they Cimino takes the time to really live with these guys for plenty of time while they work their day jobs, save money, get on each other’s nerves, plan and stake out the heist. The comedy is in full effect with Eddie (and Red riding shotgun) driving the smallest Ice Cream scooter you’ve ever seen, and happening upon the most obnoxious kid in the universe. It’s great.

As i said, they all get their moments.

The hick nutter Clint and Bridges hitch a ride with in the jacked up street rod earlier in the movie is just awesome, and wins the award for most random scene definitely. Particularly the bit where the aforementioned nutter crashes and roles the car, immediately gets out, grabs a shot gun, walks round back and opens the trunk in which there are about 50 white rabbits….wait there’s more. After heaving a few of the bunnies out of the trunk, he then starts taking potshots at the poor little buggers with his almost comedy blunderbuss. Completely bonkers, but a lot of fun.

It is this fun and comedy that works to make the violence so effective. It’s never ‘all out’ comedy, but well tempered comedic moments.

The final act where Thunderbolt & LIghtfoot stumble upon the old one room schoolhouse in which the loot from the original heist was stashed is funny, heartbreaking, and so well crafted.

As mentioned in the bullet points: After the severe beating Red finally dishes out to Lightfoot after the getaway goes awry, he begins to show signs of some sort of slowing down, and a palsy which gradually gets worse and worse until he finally just dies riding in the new white Cadillac convertible they had just bought for cash (a payoff of an earlier exchange between them about actually buying a new caddy, rather than just stealing one).

Bridges’ rapid decent, deterioration and declaration that he felt like a hero and wouldn’t change anything is mesmeric. The only thing that bothers me is the way they chose to play out Thunderbolt’s reactions to what was happening. The idea that he doesn’t seem to recognise (although it’s obvious to us) that Lightfoot is in real trouble and needs medical attention, doesn’t sit right. You could put a spin on that and say perhaps because they are fugitives (but are they? I don’t think they are at this point), taking Lightfoot to the hospital is a no go, but we don’t have any supporting dialogue for this premise. We just have poor Lightfoot gradually become more and more incoherent and physically disabled, with slurred speech and severe facial palsy, and Thunderbolt at first not seeming to notice, and then finally just saying “Are you alright kid? You don’t look too good” right before the poor boy pops his loafers right there in the caddy. It is the one instance in the movie where I wish Clint had emoted a bit more.

In typical 70s bittersweet style the movie ends with Thunderbolt driving off down a seemingly endless desert road. A road that represents a very unknown future, to the twangs of a little country song ‘Where Do I Go From Here?’ by Paul Williams.

As this is the first time I have ever bought Thunderbolt & Lightfoot to own, and sat down to watch it (rather than catching it on TV), I’m very happy to say that the movie is still a hugely enjoyable watch, and in my opinion should have a higher profile in both Clint’s (and Jeff’s) filmographies.

I’ll leave you with my favourite ‘Red’ line (said to the previously mentioned obnoxious little kid) – “Go Fuck a Duck!” – love it.

Ben Pegley

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