Judge Clark Douglas once robbed a bank. It was a piggy bank, but still...
Thunderbolt…the man with the reputation! Lightfoot…the kid who's about to make one!
"Hey. You stick with me kid. You're gonna live forever."
Facts of the Case
Following a major bank robbery, the notorious thief known as "The Thunderbolt" (Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry) hides out in a rural town and poses as a preacher. Alas, when his cover is blown, Thunderbolt is forced to go on the run again. In the midst of the chaos, he teams up with a cheerful young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges, Starman), who is fascinated by the details of Thunderbolt's colorful life. It isn't long before some of Thunderbolt's old associates (George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke and Geoffrey Lewis, High Plains Drifter) turn up, demanding their share of the money he recently stole. Unfortunately, the money was lost due to Thunderbolt's poor choice of a hiding place. After some arguments and accusations, everyone agrees on a new heist that should make everyone involved rich.
In 1974, Clint Eastwood was well on his way to becoming a respected feature film director. He had three well-received flicks under his belt (Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter and Breezy) and was on the hunt for his next project. Agent Stan Kamen introduced Eastwood to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, a buddy movie that had been developed with the gruff movie star in mind. Eastwood fell in love the script (penned by Hollywood newcomer Michael Cimino) and planned to make it his next directorial effort, but eventually decided to let Cimino himself helm it. "If it hadn't been for Eastwood," Cimino said, "I never would have had a career in the film industry."
Cimino would deliver his greatest artistic achievement a few years later in the form of The Deer Hunter, and immediately follow that with the troubled, disastrous Gates of Heaven. As such, he is best-remembered today as a creator of sprawling, bloated, ambitious American epics, films that attempt to capture an entire era in broad, sweeping strokes. To see his directorial debut is to imagine a career that might have been. The film isn't lacking in ambition, but it offers some elements generally missing from his later work: tight pacing, a sense of humor and unpretentious straightforwardness. It's not the director's best film (and it doesn't quite manage to reach the standard of Eastwood's best films of the decade, either), but it's a solid effort.
Though the script was written for Eastwood and the actor gets top billing, it's young Jeff Bridges who steals the show. His goofy, energetic performance is arguably the best thing about the film, and it's fun to observe the off-kilter chemistry he develops with Eastwood (who spends much of his screentime raising his eyebrow at Bridges' antics). Bridges received an Oscar nomination for his efforts (the only nomination the film received), and further solidified his place as one of America's most exciting young actors. Eastwood is good, but he's…well, Eastwood, playing the same sort of tough-but-good-hearted character he played in so many films. He does it well, but his work doesn't have the surprising freshness of Bridges' performance.
Your opinion on which half of the film is superior will likely depend on what you value in a movie. The first half is a little quieter and more character-driven, as the title characters work out the kinks of their relationship and begin formulating a plan. The second half of the film leans heavier on action and suspense, as the heist takes form and is carried out with varying degrees of success. I'm not entirely sure the ending quite works for me, as it seems more like a last-minute attempt at gravitas then a natural, powerful dramatic development. The movie (like so many others of its era) certainly wears its Easy Rider influence on its sleeve. Even so, Bridges' remarkable performance makes the conclusion more unsettling than it must have been on paper.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Blu-ray) sports a decent 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. The film sports some fine location shooting, but only occasionally does Cimino deliver the sort of striking visuals that would mark his later works. Detail is solid despite some occasional softness, and there's a moderate layer of natural grain present throughout. Though Twilight Time isn't exactly the cream of the crop in terms of HD restoration, they tend to avoid the sort of needless visual tampering many studios indulge in. The movies look like they're supposed to, for the most part. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is simple, but effective. Dialogue can seem a tad muted at times, but there's no crackling or popping. The low-key soundtrack is effective, too, highlighted by a catchy original song written and performed by Paul Williams. Supplements include an audio commentary with Nick Redman, Julie Kirgo and Lem Dobbs, an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet with an essay by Kirgo.
Though the film is sandwiched between the independent cinema of the era and the more commercial efforts that dominated Eastwood's career, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a solid directorial debut and a mostly-satisfying crime drama. It's worth a look.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Twilight Time
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