Blu-ray Review: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot - Twilight Time Limited Edition

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The quirky caper Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a curiously overlooked gem from 1974 that has recently been issued as a limited edition Blu-ray by boutique label Twilight Time. The freewheeling character piece stars Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges (Oscar-nominated for his work here) and was Michael Cimino’s directorial debut (his follow-up effort, The Deer Hunter, would land him an Oscar for Best Director). Produced by Eastwood, Thunderbolt is tough to pin down—what with its anything-goes combination of comedy, road movie, and crime thriller elements—but an awful lot of fun to watch. The film apparently turned quite a tidy profit in its theatrical release (about $22 million, upwards of $100 million adjusted for inflation), but its popularity seems to have waned sharply since then.

So it’s with great enthusiasm that I heartily recommend seeking out this gem (only 3,000 copies were pressed by Twilight Time). Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is the type of movie that takes glee in little surprises, goosing viewers with non-sequiturs, bizarre occurrences, and unpredictable character moments. Eastwood’s Thunderbolt is a bank robber who begins the film posing as a minister. Seeing Eastwood with his hair plastered to his head, preaching to a full congregation, is the film’s first great gag. Meanwhile, Bridges’ Lightfoot is in the process of stealing a used car right in front of the dealer, his devil-may-care charm ensuring that we can’t help but cheer him on. The two meet after Thunderbolt’s sermon is interrupted by gunfire (a former associate with an obvious objective). The “minister” is sent fleeing into a field, chased by the gunman, and soon forces himself upon Lightfoot as an uninvited passenger.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot cover TMR.jpgThus begins a truly endearing friendship that eventually leads to a partnership in crime. Red (George Kennedy) and Geoffrey (Eddie Goody) are Thunderbolt’s pursuers; former associates who believed they were cheated out of their share of a previous robbery. In truth, Thunderbolt never retrieved the stolen money from an old-room schoolhouse. Red wants to kill Thunderbolt and, upon meeting him, isn’t too fond of Lightfoot either. No fair revealing how the quartet’s relationship evolves over the second half of the story, but suffice it to say that Cimino’s screenplay explores the limits of loyalty and the perilous depths to which raging greed leads.

Eastwood, interestingly, is mostly reactionary in the lead role. No surprise Bridges received so much acclaim; he’s a loose cannon with an irresistible grin. Much has been made about the perceived homosexual subtext in their relationship, but I think it’s only there if you really want it to be. For one thing, Bridges is such an unrepentant horndog (he has an encounter with a young Catherine Bach—scorching hot in an all-too-brief appearance) I can’t begin to seriously entertain the gay interpretation. I think it’s more that Eastwood seems strangely impotent here, failing to seal the deal during a one-night-stand with comely June Fairchild. Gary Busey and Vic Tayback turn up in blink-and-miss-it walk-ons, working with Lightfoot when he and Thunderbolt take up straight jobs to raise money to fund their heist.

Unfortunately, Cimino takes a hard right turn into fairly heavy drama midway through the final act. Without spoiling anything, it’s worth noting (and complaining about) the unnecessarily tragic conclusion that nearly obliterates the often riotous fun that preceded it. No, it’s not enough of a downer to cancel things out, but it does dampen the sunny atmosphere that Cimino and company so successfully sustained for most of the running time.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot 1 TMR.jpgFrank Stanley served as director of photography on four consecutive Clint Eastwood films from 1973-75, including Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (the others were Breezy, Magnum Force, and The Eiger Sanction). His meat-and-potatoes cinematography is sturdily presented on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray. It’s a somewhat drab looking film to begin with, but this is a generally clean, crisp transfer. Grain is certainly present throughout. While heavy by modern standards, it’s consistent with films of the era. Wide shots are a bit wanting in terms of fine detail and clarity, but overall this is a rich viewing experience. The DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track is entirely sufficient without being especially noteworthy.

As for special features, those partial to Twilight Time’s traditional isolated score tracks will be pleased to find Dee Barton’s music presented in such a fashion (in DTS-HD MA 2.0). More interesting for general viewers is the newly recorded commentary track by film historians Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and Nick Redman. All aspects of the film are discussed, including the homosexual subtext that many viewers claim to have detected. It’s a typically relaxed, chatty, and very informative commentary—well worth the listen.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot should be a total no-brainer for devotees of Eastwood, Bridges, and/or Cimino. Head over to Screen Archives, distributor of Twilight Time Blu-rays, for ordering information.

Images (property of 20th Century Fox/MGM) are promotional-only and not representative of the Blu-ray’s 1080p resolution.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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