In 1974, I was 16 and generally able to make a lot of choices for myself. My parents had enough problems with my older brother, that they chose not to bring the hammer down on me for much. In truth I was such a goody two shoes they didn’t have much to worry about and they knew it. I was movie crazy and I would go whenever the chance afforded itself. This was one of those opportunities I took advantage of. I’m sure it pissed my Dad off because I went with his friend Rusty to the show for the day. Rusty is a guy I mentioned before. He was only a few years older than my brother, and he basically wanted to grow up and be a magician. Specifically, he thought my Dad was the best act he had seen and wanted to emulate him. I don’t know how serious he was because I never saw him practice and the one show I ever saw him perform, he needed more practice. Rusty had the same bug I did, he loved going to the movies. He was in one of the craft unions in Hollywood, and worked on TV sets as a carpenter. This meant he had money and he could indulge his whims. While, I was one of those whims. He would call and ask if I wanted to see a show and off we went. Most of the time my Dad shrugged it off, but when we would disappear into the theater for the whole day, he would blow his stack when I got home. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was a movie I saw on one of those days. We may have gone to five films that day. I know we finished with a double feature that includes “Dogs” and “Cutthroats Nine”, but we started the day at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. with this Clint Eastwood action film.
At first it appears that Clint is a hunted preacher, lucky to escape a crazed killer, but of course it turns out more complicated than that. As I was watching this film today, I was surprised at how little of the first half I remembered. The opening was not in my head at all. I thought Clint picked up Jeff Bridges character as a hitchhiker, it is almost exactly the opposite. There are some bits of character development that I did not recall at all, and the whole interlude with the two girls (one of them Catherine Bach) was just a haze. It actually takes almost an hour to get to the main point of the plot. This is a heist film and Clint was part of a gang that committed a big robbery. They decide to repeat the crime because the money from the first heist disappeared. The tools that are used in the crime account for Clint’s moniker in the film “The Thunderbolt”. The planning of the heist and set up of events is actually done very effectively. You get enough detail to know what has to go right, but there are also a number of things that can go wrong.
Once again there are a whole stream of character actors in this movie that appear in other Eastwood films. Geoffrey Lewis of course, and he is a comic foil instead of just playing the heavy. Bill McKinney has a brief bit as a lunitic driver who gives the main characters a ride. Burton Gillian, a stunt guy that was in a lot of westerns (although none that I know of with Clint) has a small part as a coworker of Clints’ at a welding job. He is probably best remembered as the nasty but stupid cowboy from Blazing Saddles, he was Slim Picken’s number two. I also saw Gary Busey in this movie as a coworker with Jeff Bridges. If this was not his first movie, it was close to it. This movie was written and directed by Michael Cimino, who’s next picture would win the Academy Award, “The Deer Hunter”. The third picture he made brought an end to the success that he had had. “Heaven’s Gate” ended up destroying not only his career but United Artists Studio. While he was making his four hour western, the studio honchos were very nervous about the time and money. Cimino reportedly used Clint as a tool in his persuasive bag of tricks. He would tell anyone who doubted his ability to shoot efficiently to check with Clint. I don’t know if they ever did, but that cache does him no good nowadays.
The movie looks great, most of it was shot in Idaho and Montana. This may be why Cimino wanted to film there, (and get the studio to subsidize his ranch at the same time). There is a chase scene through the gorgeous Snake River Canyon. The two leads end up leaving on a ferry ride down the river which is a chance for them and us to marvel at the beautiful background. The small town feel of the locations is really accurate. The diner, the bar and the drive-in, all feel like real places that people in that part of the world would encounter. This is why location shooting is important, the back lot at Universal or Warner’s can’t do this as well.
Jeff Bridges is actually a co-star if not the star of the picture. He received an Academy Award nomination in the best supporting actor category. How they figure that is not clear, he has as many lines and scenes as Clint does, and his story arc is the central point of the movie. His character'”Lightfoot” has a great walk on introduction, coming out of a field in the middle of nowhere wearing leather pants. It is clear he is the rock star of the film. I thought that his character’s resolution was unnecessary, but it probably accounted for 80% of the support he got for his nomination. This is a very smooth, good looking heist picture with some great characters. It has some nice twists and there is even a Paul William’s song to go with it. It is a little strange that Clint keeps telling Bridges that he is about 10 years too late to be connecting with him. Clint, was an international sex symbol at this time and his virility was used to sell a lot of movies. I just find it funny that he was playing the old man card in 1974, thirty-five years before he decided he was too old to be playing romantic leads any more.