Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges’s Modern Western “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” is a proto-bromance that becomes a crime story halfway through.
By Richard Brody, The New Yorker
In 1973, Clint Eastwood, who was already a major star, produced and acted in Michael Cimino’s first film as a director, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.” It offered more than a fine role for Eastwood; it was one of the great directorial débuts of the New Hollywood era. “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” plays July 2 at BAM Cinématek in a series of heist movies co-programmed by Edgar Wright (June 27-July 23), who directed a new entry in the genre, “Baby Driver,” opening this week. Cimino’s film is a heist movie with a difference: it withholds the crime story until midway through the film. Before that, it’s a rough-and-tumble, back-road Northwest adventure that’s also a buddy comedy, even a proto-bromance.
The movie, which Cimino also wrote, is loosely based on, and named after, two infamous early-nineteenth-century Irish bandits. Eastwood plays John (Thunderbolt) Doherty, an Idaho country preacher who’s actually a bank robber in hiding. Jeff Bridges, who was twenty-four at the time, plays Lightfoot, a fast-talking, freewheeling, fun-loving drifter and grifter. The two men meet cute when Thunderbolt’s sermon is interrupted by a gunman and he dashes from his crowded church. Lightfoot, speeding on a country road in a stolen muscle car, picks up the fleeing Thunderbolt and outdrives the gunman for kicks—and experiences a sort of fraternal love at first sight for his terse, coolly confident and worldly-wise older passenger.
Ditching another stolen car, Lightfoot leads Thunderbolt into Hell’s Canyon, on the Snake River, where, the young man says, “Up here, people’s business is nobody’s but their own.” But trouble ensues when Thunderbolt’s former partners in crime turn up—the resentful and brutal Red (George Kennedy) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), whose benighted lumpishness contrasts dismally with Thunderbolt’s bladelike precision and Lightfoot’s carefree, sexually uninhibited insolence. After a near-deadly tangle, they put their differences aside to undertake a new robbery—of an armored-truck depot—in a small Montana town. Accumulating know-how and equipment (including an anti-tank cannon), the four men live in a simulacrum of domesticity that seethes with ambient violence and erotic tension. As Thunderbolt details to Lightfoot the obstacles they face—“microphones, electric eyes, pressure-sensitive mats, vibration detectors, tear gas, and even thermostats”—Lightfoot beams at him blissfully.
Cimino blends the split-second criminal plot with wild humor. Lightfoot gets called out on his macho posturing by a woman with a hammer (no one gets hurt), but Cimino also takes deadly seriously the sort of beat-downs that are usually played for laughs. The action, however, is inseparable from Cimino’s distinctive view of the untamed landscapes. The film’s images are filled with a pointillistic profusion of detail—wheat stalks at the roadside, a modern bridge’s metallic latticework, even the duo’s jazzily patterned shirts—that’s as alluring as it is nerve-jangling. Cimino’s wide-open West is a wonder and a snare, blending freedom and cruelty, innocence and ignorance; its expanses seem blood-soaked and death-haunted. With its mix of spectacle and intimacy, exuberance and tragedy, “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” points ahead to the radical extremes of Cimino’s 1980 masterwork, “Heaven’s Gate.”