Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) Twilight Time Blu Ray review
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot makes a most welcome release to Blu Ray. The film marked the directorial debut of screenwriter Michael Cimino, a filmmaker who would later experience the full spectrum of Hollywood’s high and low points. Here, Cimino operates at a purely benevolent level, both innocent and opportunist in his approach, Cimino appears to excel in his direction under the conscientious guidance of star/producer Clint Eastwood and his Malpaso Company. By 1974, the 44 year-old Eastwood was both wise and experienced enough to recognise the signs of wasteful and misplaced production values. Big budgeted studio pictures such as Paint Your Wagon and Where Eagles Dare had served as a priceless, cautionary tale that Eastwood would carry with him as part of his evolving education. As one of the emerging breed of Hollywood’s young turks, Ciminio was of course keen to express himself. However, unlike Cimino’s later relationships with the studios, Eastwood arguably retained a firm hold of the leash. Granting Ciminio a certain freedom to express himself certainly proved good, logical sense – and as a result, allowed an innocent freshness to shine through. Nevertheless, one is left with an overwhelming feeling that this may have been one of the rare occasions that Cimino was guided by an experienced hand and advised to either ‘stop’ or ‘move on’.
In its simplest form, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a superior slice of Americana, and you’d be hard pushed not to notice the stars and stripes gently dancing on a breeze somewhere along the journey. At its helm, it is a hugely enjoyable comedy–crime caper, whilst at its heart; we are called upon to observe a richly displayed and extremely well defined character study. The nature of its storytelling is really something to behold, for it is a genuine rarity by today’s standards. The film flows easily at a gentle pace, allowing each and every character to unfold and reveal their layers. To observe a cliché, it really is ‘the kind of film they don’t make anymore’. To explore the plot would serve little purpose, and it is, after all, there for you to discover and enjoy for yourself.
As mentioned above, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is driven by characterization, and this re-evaluation of the film has again certainly highlighted how superior the four performances really are. Eastwood as ex bank robber Thunderbolt appears both relaxed and at ease in his role, an ‘everyman’ of sorts, who projects a confident, laid-back coolness. Jeff Bridges stars as Lightfoot, a brash, quick-witted wiseass with a happy go lucky attitude. In many ways, Bridges steals the show with a wonderful performance that earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The ever reliable George Kennedy plays Red Leary, an angry, violent man who shares a past with Thunderbolt, while Leary’s sidekick Goody is played by Geoffrey Lewis, a harmless rogue and routine lackey. Between the four central characters, the ‘buddy’ element of the narrative is truly defined – between both Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and Leary and Goody. Yet, there is also an awkward darkness that creeps into the proceedings which leaves an unsettling atmosphere - primarily between Lightfoot and Leary. It is a clash driven by disrespect and old school morals. Lightfoot’s lack of conduct and overall demeanour (Lightfoot wears leather pants) are everything that Leary hates about ‘the kid’ and a constant cause of friction between the two. However, the relationships (as well as the characters) are also multifaceted, and questioned beyond the narrative. For example, Thunderbolt is quick to assert a display of masculinity when Lightfoot is threatened, as one would perhaps expect to see a woman’s honour defended by a man… Later in the film Lightfoot is required to dress as a woman in order to aid in the heist – coincidental? This is just one (rather blatant) example of many - which are more diverse and subliminal throughout the film. It is a curious observation of subtext, and one which (I can assure you) creates some fascinating debate. There is also plenty of room to discuss the overall attitude towards women in this film, which is pretty much non-existent, and on the rare occasion when a female character does appear, doesn’t exactly prove complimentary.
In comparison, there is almost an innocent modesty about Cimino’s film, a simple ‘no thrills’ look which is defined by Frank Stanley’s extraordinary photography. The Big Skies and sprawling untouched landscapes of Montana almost serve as the film’s purist example of beauty. Dee Barton’s restrained score also adds to the subtle quality and only ‘beefs up’ decisively for the film’s tense final. The highlight of the music is of course the memorable song Where Do I Go from Here (1971) written and performed by Paul Williams.
Much like the unspoilt landscape of Montana, Twilight Time’s 1080p transfer of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has been beautifully and thoughtfully handled. From the outset, let me point out that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has always contained ‘film grain’, it’s meant to. It was shot on 35mm film stock, and thankfully the film’s grain is left intact. Unfortunately, too many films from this particular period are ‘ironed out’ to within an inch of their lives and therefore eliminate the film’s original look. The opening shots (almost static images of sky and fields) perhaps display the film’s grain at its most prominent – yet is far from a distraction and remains the life blood of celluloid. More importantly, the film has been produced with attention to maximum clarity. Physical, age related artefacts such as dust marks, specks have now been removed, whilst delicate colour grading as resulted in some nice deeper blacks and natural looking skin tones. It is obvious that there has been no attempt to over saturate and because of that, the film retains a genuine authentic look. In terms of audio, Twilight Time has provided a sweet sounding 1.0 DTS HD soundtrack. It’s rather amazing that some people still seem to have a grievance about titles such as this, and specifically why they do not contain a multi-channel soundtrack? It’s quite simple really, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was recorded in mono (= designating sound transmission or recording or reproduction over a single channel), hopefully, enough said…
Twilight Time’s extras boast the Original Theatrical Trailer which provides just enough to tease you into the story without any spoilers, and nicely showcases composer Dee Barton’s dramatic side of his score. For the first time, we are also treated to Dee Barton’s isolated score – a genuine treat for soundtrack hunters. After listening to the isolated score in its entirety, I can perhaps understand why Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has never been granted a dedicated soundtrack release. Whilst it is nicely composed - it is sparingly used - until the actual heist gets under way. This is where Barton turns up the heat, and his variations of an edgy, electronic theme truly takes hold. It is well worth the inclusion, and a lot of people will be thankful that Twilight Time took this opportunity to make sure that Barton’s score never fell into obscurity. The film’s commentary track proved to be the highlight of the extras. Moderated in relaxed and friendly style, Nick Redman sits down with guests Lem Dobbs and Julie Kirgo. Together, the team provide an endless stream of incredible information. Among the subjects discussed are detailed analysis of virtually everyone that appears on screen, the career of director Cimino, production history and the conspicuous ongoing debate revolving around the Gay/No way subtext. Originating on an internet forum from many years ago, (of which I was one of the regular contributors) both Dobbs and Kirgo discuss at length the evidence behind this extraordinary element of the film which continues to remain the subject of fascinating debate.
Twilight Time has also provided a very nice accompanying booklet containing production notes and a history of the film, all written intelligently by Julie Kirgo. The case cover comes in the shape of the rarely used Style ‘A’ U.S. 1 sheet and containing the fabulous artwork of Ken Barr. A beautiful package, thoughtfully produced and one not to be missed, it’s hard to see Thunderbolt and Lightfoot ever looking better than this.