Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges Make Tracks in Director Michael Cimino’s Rollicking Debut.
DIRECTED BY MICHAEL CIMINO/1974
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 12, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
I guess there are two old forgotten Americas. There’s the old forgotten America that is referenced in Michael Cimino’s 1974 rollick, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and then there’s the other one that is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
The film stars Clint Eastwood (then forty-four years old and the biggest movie star on the planet) and Jeff Bridges (assuredly on the rise) as buddies on the run. Pitted together via madcap luck, they tear around that dusty dilapidation of terminally rural U.S.A.; with its forgotten storefronts and mountains in the distance. It’s the very rough-Americana milieu that pre-blockbuster/early-1970s audience films such as this so often favored, in this case utilized to a tee. (They’re in the Montana outskirts, “purple mountain’s majesty”, as Nick Pinkerton points out).
The veneer of the world-gone-by is all over this film, yet it can’t be said that it wallows in any kind of nostalgia. Rather, it remains sharp-focused on the adventures of our title characters as they outwit pursuers, Red and Eddie (a festering George Kennedy with a milquetoast Geoffrey Lewis) and swap out cool cars, all the while slipping the local fuzz. Their swagger is as natural as their banter is witty. And if this movie were to open today, the term “Bromance“ would be thrown around. But screw that term; this is the 1974! (Actually, in the movie, it’s 1972).
This is a time when you didn’t say “cis male“, you said “red blooded American man“. Odds are, the central audience for this Blu-ray might still prefer the latter. For them, there’s the eventual plot: Thunderbolt, Lightfoot, Red, and Eddie team up for an elaborate robbery of an impenetrable, locked-down facility. (Now presumably all the more locked down, since Thunderbolt claims to have robbed it before). For a while, our shit-kickin’ buddy movie turns into a full-on heist picture, complete with a tensely detailed planning session, followed by the orchestrated suspense of said plan being carried out.
This is the completely competent but less respectable crowd-pleaser the director Michael Cimino made before he went all prestigious with The Deer Hunter and got too big for his britches with Heaven’s Gate. It is, in fact, his rookie directorial outing; a most impressive one at that. From the outset, Cimino declared himself an “American filmmaker”- not per shallow flag-waving or jingoism, but via his author’s approach. In a thirty-minute audio interview from 2014 (included on the disc as an extra), the late director pounds the point that he does what he does from a place of character centricity, as opposed to thematics.
Yet, notions of America then & now are the intellectual wallpaper of the film. Cimino five years ago was under the delusion that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot hasn’t aged. Of course it’s aged. Not only is it cute in how it bangs to drum of aging for a forty-four-year-old Eastwood (still going strong at the time of this review), but it’s proud chauvinism and cocksureness don’t exactly go down easy. These things, though, are simply part of Cimino’s landscape rendering circa 1974. As Lightfoot, that sayer of dorky platitudes might say, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.
So matter-of-fact is Thunderbolt and Lightfoot eventually revealed to be that, later in the film, as Bridges fresh-faced rogue is reduced to a suburban pipe-laying job and the homeowner lady surprises him by suddenly revealing herself to him stark naked, his big goofy grin is literally all the further things go. This, despite that being the end of the scene, a cut that has long communicated off-screen sex. It’s enough to make one wonder if Lightfoot’s unseen dalliance with Catherine Bach (The Dukes of Hazard) at the film’s start actually went anywhere. What we do see is Thunderbolt and his “date”, alone together in a dark and ominous room, Eastwood’s fiery eyes staring beyond the girl on him (June Fairchild), writhing in vain. This too goes nowhere, but in an altogether more direct and fundamentally unpleasant way.
Inevitably, then, the whole thing can effortlessly be argued as gay, gay, gay. If this is indeed the case, the entire film is a case study in overcompensation of the closeted. No matter how many sexy short skirts the camera leers upon as the boys grin and drool, there’s no getting around how wretchedly awkward Thunderbolt’s intimate sex scene with a young lady is, nor how at home Lightfoot is in full drag. Meanwhile, they buy each other ice cream cones and throw glances back and forth. Cimino, and all parties involved, are signaling that this too is America. And the signal is every bit as uncomfortable about it as the characters themselves are.
Film critic Nick Pinkerton, in one of his best commentary tracks to date, details these long-standing observations and far, far more in his continuous analysis. Somehow, when Pinkerton lapses into the standard-issue filmographies and back-histories of everyone on screen, it’s less of a trudge. He is engaged, not fawning over this accomplished timepiece but lecturing in fascination and doing it well. Kino Lorber Studio Classics’ new Blu-ray release absolutely does not disappoint in terms of picture, extras and audio quality. The frequent sound of tires squealing is as resonant as 1970s icon Paul Williams singing the theme song, “Where Do I Go from Here”. (Where, indeed.)
All in all, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot never fails to entertain. If it’s not impressing with its verve and competence, it’s scoring chuckles with its audacious magnetism. Like its own treatment of then-antiquated country churches and one-room schoolhouses, Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot strikes fully as a vestigial of a slightly more recent vision of “old weird America”. It’s gone now, but we can look back in bemused fascination.