Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Vision Of A Vanished America

It’s now over ten years since a new film by Michael Cimino played theaters—that was THE SUNCHASER, which barely got any sort of release as it was. But even after all this time, I still don’t quite know what to make of his body of work and that was still the case for me at a recent Cinematheque screening of THE DEER HUNTER, after which I left the Egyptian slightly in awe but also not quite knowing just how to react. Now that I’ve seen THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT, his 1974 directorial debut that he also wrote, the mystery of just what his films are continues for me, even though this one was actually a hugely enjoyable surprise. It’s definitely the most likable of any of his films and made me take notice of a small theme that runs through some of them, one that pays a certain amount of attention to the vast middle of the country with a feel for the landscape, the mountains, as well as a person’s relation to the vast landscape that’s around them. “Let’s see what’s over the next mountain” is a key line here and feels like an idea that he can relate to more than anything.

As he is delivering his sermon, a minister (Clint Eastwood) in a tiny church is ambushed by a gunman. Attempting to flee, he winds up in a car recently stolen by a young drifter named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). It us eventually revealed that he is actually a thief in hiding who goes by the name Thunderbolt and the two take off together with no real destination in mind. Though Thunderbolt is hesitant to take him up on his offer of partnership, he sticks close to the kid, aware that a few other members of his old gang are after him. When Thunderbolt attempts to retrieve the money he had hidden in a one-room schoolhouse, he discovers the building gone and when the remaining gang members (George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) turn up to take care of him, Lightfoot comes up with a new plan for them to team up to rob the same place and this time make sure that they hang onto the money.

The heist plotline makes it feel slightly like a Don Siegel film, but a looser, more idiosyncratic film than that director normally made, with some unusual and at times striking location work out there in Montana. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT takes it sweet time getting going with much of the first act spent just watching the two leads getting to know each. But something about the easy going nature of the film meant that by fifteen minutes in, for me watching it was like wearing a favorite old comfortable shirt and by the time we got to the heist I was fully invested in these guys. The mechanics of the heist are well put together and clearly defined, with the use of a cannon to break into the vault that a lot of the ad campaign looks to have been centered around (since it’s the early 70s there’s lots of car chase action too) but what’s best about the film is its easygoing, likable nature that feels wedded to the land its set in, with even the bad guys played by Kennedy and Lewis treated in a way that feels a little endearing. Interestingly the only people the film seems to treat as solely comical figures are the various married couples who pop up throughout, with the best laugh involving the mother worried about her daughter who’s ‘just a baby’, almost as if they deserve such treatment for settling down and giving up on the possibility of drifting from one mountain to the next. It’s a very enjoyable movie, no doubt about it, but there’s also a melancholy vibe, as if it’s acknowledging the price that’s paid for spending so much time the road at the expense of settling down. The film never seems to comment on this outside of the terrific Paul Williams song, “Where Do I Go From Here” but it’s there if you’re willing to read between the lines and listen to the pauses in dialogue spoken by Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt, who is at first hesitant to get mixed up with Lightfoot’s earnest overtures towards partnership for no reason other than saying, “Kid, you’re ten years too late.” That wistfulness that you could find in so many movies of the seventies that usually aren’t thought of as being anything more than just “fun” is something that really is unfortunately missing from films these days.

Eastwood and Bridges (Oscar nominated for this) are both terrific, with great chemistry and each jumping in from the very beginning with fully realized characterizations for these guys—sure, we’ve often seen Bridges as a likable character but how often has Eastwood been so effortlessly easygoing? Kennedy and Lewis have a surprising Laurel and Hardy vibe to a few of their scenes together (particularly when Lewis works as an ice cream man) but they pull off a perfect balance of making them funny, multi-dimensional and, when it’s necessary, genuinely threatening bad guys. Also sprinkled throughout the film are familiar faces, most of them well-billed in small bits with each giving the feeling that they are important in the worlds they occupy, including Catherine Bach (looking shockingly like Lindsay Lohan), “Garey” Busey, Burton Gilliam, Vic Tayback, Jack Dodson, Bill McKinney, Dub Taylor, Gregory Walcott and June Fairchild of PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW in a very funny scene with Eastwood involving the word “rape” that you could never get away with today. I can’t help but think of all these actors and associate them with a certain sign seen near the end of the film which mentions how something evokes “a vision of a vanished America” and how films today rarely seem to pause for such incidental characters, not to mention how rarely there are such juicy character roles for today’s equivalents of George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis.

The earnest, likable nature of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT sets it apart from most other films of this type from the early seventies and it seems particularly special as a result. It’s a shame that Michael Cimino never made a film in this type of vein again but as we all know he had a different path in mind. I don’t know where he is in the world right now—who does?—but maybe he’s just out there somewhere looking for what’s over the next mountain.


Unknown said...

Wow, I haven't thought about this film in years and you're excellent post has really got me wanting to revisit this film again.

"The heist plotline makes it feel slightly like a Don Siegel film, but a looser, more idiosyncratic film than that director normally made"

What a fantastic observation and right on the money I might add. I think that's maybe why this is still my fave Cimino film. As you pointed out, the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood (two of my faves) is excellent and it's a shame that they didn't make more films together.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

I'm thrilled that you liked the piece, J.D. This was my first time viewing it and I just found it such a rewarding experience. I can hardly blame you for calling it your favorite film by Cimino. It really would have been special if Bridges had turned up in a movie directed by Clint somewhere along the way. Anyway, thanks very much.

Ned Merrill said...

Like you, Mr. Peel I only recently caught up with this film. It was on the free movies section of On Demand this summer and it was a treat to see Bridges and Eastwood together. I don't know what took me so long to get to it.

George Kennedy seems to be playing the same role he always does, but nobody did it better, did they? Geoffrey Lewis enlivens anything he's in. Busey and Bridges appeared in several things together at this time--LAST AMERICAN HERO and LOLLY MADONNA XXX. Gregory Walcott also did time in LAST AMERICAN HERO and was one of the best things about PRIME CUT. Whatever became of him? Dub Taylor, June Fairchild, Vic Tayback, Karen Lamm (twice Mrs. Dennis Wilson and once Mrs. Robert Lamm). Cimino, or was it Eastwood, really assembled a top-drawer cast.

On Elvis Mitchell's show on TCM this summer, guest Bill Murray says that he was a big admirer of this film and told Eastwood so. He wanted to play sidekick to Eastwood as Bridges had done. IIRC, there was talk of something after STRIPES, but Murray declined because the Eastwood project was also military-themed.

I must commend you on mentioning the Paul Williams track. I admit to having a soft spot for the man. In addition to the classic PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE soundtrack, I often find myself inexplicably humming the theme songs to THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE and ONE ON ONE. If you haven't heard it, his LP, SOMEDAY MAN, which predates all of the soundtrack stuff and has recently been reissued by Collector's Choice, is a lovely example of late '60s soft pop.

Unknown said...

"On Elvis Mitchell's show on TCM this summer, guest Bill Murray says that he was a big admirer of this film and told Eastwood so. He wanted to play sidekick to Eastwood as Bridges had done. IIRC, there was talk of something after STRIPES, but Murray declined because the Eastwood project was also military-themed."

I saw this interview too. Oh man, what a pairing that would have been -- Murray and Eastwood? Wow... If only...

Anonymous said...

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is one of my favorite films of the '70s. It's idiosyncratic and goofy, but in a very subtle way. We aren't being bombarded with gags or goofiness. The cast was terrific and there is no denying that along with Ridley Scott, Cimino had one of the best visual design senses ever. I think this film would make a great double feature with Thelma & Louise.

I've wanted to write something on this movie for a while, but there is just no information on it out there. Eastwood, Bridges and particularly Cimino aren't the kinds of guys who do DVD commentaries. This film just exists on its own, to be discovered or interperted at your own leisure.

Excellent article, Peter.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Glad you like the film as well and yes, it's such a terrific cast. Gregory Walcott was a good actor, particularly in PRIME CUT. He's still alive but I'm guessing he's retired now and his biggest claim to fame is probably having played the lead in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. With all those people, as well as the Paul Williams song, it really is like a nice little suprised for people who haven't stumbled across it yet.


Yeah, if only that film existed. Oh well...


I really like the way you put it--'it exists on its own, to be discovered or interperted at your own leisure.' It really fits this sort of film that never tries to make a big thing over what it is. It allows you to find the pleasures within. I'm glad you liked the piece, thanks very much.

Arbogast said...

I saw this a number of times at the drive-in when I was a kid, as the co-hit, but I don't remember what the first-run film was. Like you, I warmed to its sense of space and sunshine and loved all the character bits (especially Dub "That ain't it" Taylor). Bridges' final scene ("I feel proud") has stuck with me over the ensuing 30 years and I've never seen a film fade-out quite like his - realistic and heartbreaking. And I love the Paul Williams tune, too. Aren't we a bunch of softies?

Anonymous said...

If you had not yet noticed, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot will be screening at the New Beverly on April 29 & 30. I hope I'll see you there!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


I think we become softies when it's a movie which earns that response as much as this one does. That's what I say.


I have noticed and I may have to take advantage of the chance so I can see this one in a theater!

Fred said...

While I find a lot of Cimino's work problematic on a political/PC level, this really is a fascinating piece of work. My two favorite T&L anecdotes:

1) I've always loved Steven Bach's anecdote in Final Cut about how, when they were thinking of firing Cimino for going over budget on Heaven's Gate, he suddenly blurted out how, in the robbery scene in T&L, he'd done three days' worth of work in one shooting day, after Clint told him, "Oh, by the way- I'm going home tonight, so make sure you have everything you need."

2) Apparently, Jeff Bridges knocked on Cimino's hotel room door the night before shooting started, to tell him he was quitting the movie, as he didn't think he could do the role. Cimino kept his calm (somehow) and said, "Jeff- you *are* the role. Trust me," going on in that vein for a couple of hours. Bridges finally left, convinced; Cimino went back to bed, for a sleepless night.

clifton.ra said...

The Dud Taylor joke is lost on anyone that was too young for the independent and affiliated gas station's of this era. See the USA in a...