Sunday, May 31, 2009


Before he ascended to the zenith of his career with the Oscar-winning Best Picture “The Deer Hunter” (1978) and then plummeted to his nadir with the costly western “Heaven’s Gate” (1980) that bankrupted United Artists and forced them to merge with MGM, writer & director Michael Cimino got his start with Clint Eastwood. Initially, Cimino contributed the Russian roulette sequences to the “Dirty Harry” sequel “Magnum Force.” Incidentally, Cimino’s first credit as a scenarist occurred earlier on director Douglas Trumbull’s sci-fi epic “Silent Running,” with Bruce Dern. Anyway, Cimino made his directorial debut with “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” (**** out of ****). This exciting, tour-de-force Clint Eastwood & Jeff Bridges thriller ranks as one of the top ten perfect crimes heist movies of the 1970s. Cimino’s film chronicles the friendship between an older man, a Korean War veteran on-the-lam, and a hopelessly footloose but fast-talking twentysomething who cherishes grand theft auto, easy women, and cliches.

Ultimately, Joe Doherty, aka ‘Thunderbolt’ (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) team up reluctantly with Eastwood’s old partners-in-crime, Red Leary (George Kennedy of “Cool Hand Luke”) and Goody (Geoffrey Lewis of “High Plains Drifter”) to rob an armored car company. They wind up wielding a 20MM cannon to blow gigantic holes in the wall of the safe. The first third of the action introduces us to the rogue’s gallery of thieves, and the second third details their elaborate plans as they accumulate the necessary tool to pull it off this complicated heist. The third focuses on the frenzied getaway, dissolution of the gang and the final showdown with Red. Not only is “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” a memorable crime caper with quotable dialogue, but also it is a top-notch drama with interesting characters, including Geoffrey Lewis as a bumbling fool and George Kennedy as a sadistic killer. Jeff Bridges received as Oscar nomination for his sympathetic but ill-fated bad guy. The scenes with Bridges dressing up like a girl to lure a tubby security guard in the alarm systems board are hilarious.

The action opens with scenic long shots of wheat fields to the lovely strains of Dee Barton’s music and we find ourselves near wooden church with a majestic steeple as an old black car wheels up to it. A burly guy in a dark suit and white hat, Dunlop (seasoned heavy Roy Jenson) gets out to stretch his legs as he listens to the choir warble a standard hymn. Cimino switches to another setting as the eponymous young drifter, Lightfoot, limps onto a used car dealership, and admires a Trans Am. The owner, brilliantly played in a bit part by Gregory Walcott) invites him to climb behind the wind and kick the engine over. “She’s cleaner than a cat’s ass,” the dealer brags and then wonders if a youth like Lightfoot can handle her. Lightfoot tells him that he has a wooden leg. While the dealer ponders this sudden shift in conversation, Lightfoot steals the car and tears away across country.

Back at the church, we discover that Clint Eastwood is posing as an Episcopal minister in black suit with a white collar. Just as John ‘Thunderbolt’ Doherty utters some Biblical homilies about the lion lying down with the lamb, Dunlop bursts into the sanctuary with a Mauser machine pistol and triggers a barrage of shots that sends everybody scrambling for the doors, including Doherty. Our hero charges across the wheat field with a wheezing Dunlop in close pursuit, pausing occasionally to fire at his fleet-footed quarry. Doherty flags down a sports car, Lightfoot in the Trans Am, and Lightfoot swerves, plunges into the wheat field, smashes into Dunlop, and kills him. Reversing, Lightfoot races back out of the field. As Lightfoot races past Doherty, Doherty slings himself onto the automobile, climbs through the passenger’s window, dislocating his shoulder, and settles in alongside Lightfoot. Presto, their friendship begins. Along the way, they swap cars with a family and Doherty decides to go his separate way at a bus depot.

Doherty leaves Lightfoot at a bus station. While he is sauntering through the depot, Doherty spots is old crime partner, vindictive Red Leary, and rejoins Lightfoot before he pulls out of town. The guys head off to a motel, and Lightfoot changes vehicle license tags. Along the way, he picks up two cuties, Melody (Catherine Bach) and Gloria (June Fairchild of “Detroit 9000”), and takes them back to the motel. Doherty, we learn, has a bad leg. Gloria inquires about all his scars and he explains that he received them in Korea. When Doherty refuses to take Gloria home at 3 AM, she runs out in her underwear and screams "rape!” Doherty gives her cab fare.

Eventually, Red and Goody catch up with our heroes. Initially, Red tries to ambush in a roadside diner parking lot. Lightfoot leads Red on a careening chase through the mountains with Red blasting away with his carbine but missing. Later, Red and Goody get the drop on them and try to kill them. Doherty disarms Red but refuses to kill him. Instead, he explains he didn’t take the loot from the previous hold-up. They stashed it in a one-room school house. When they returned to get it, the school house had vanished. Lightfoot’s suggests that they rob the same armored car company. Red hates Lightfoot from the get-go, but he cooperates reluctantly as they set up the crime. They take jobs. Goody drives an ice cream wagon. Red is a janitor at a local department store. Doherty goes to work as a wielder. Lightfoot works as a landscaping technician. They live in a trailer and pile their dough together while they plan the heist. Lightfoot tells them about his encounter one afternoon while he was pounding turf and a bored housewife stood in the window with nary a stitch on, beaver and all on display. Naturally, the perverted Red wants to know what Lightfoot did. Lightfoot surprises him by clapping his hand over Leary’s mouth and kissing the back of his hand. Predictably, Leary is furious and wants to beat the hell out of Lightfoot.

Our conspirators get through old gear out of storage, namely the 20 MM cannon. Doherty and Leary invade the Montana Armored supervisor home (Jack Dodson of “The Getaway”) wearing hose, tie them up, and get the combination for the safe. Meanwhile, Lightfoot poses as a woman to get into the alarm systems office and silence the alarms. Doherty masquerades as a cop and brings a prisoner, Leary, up to Montana Armored and bluffs his way inside. They slug the guard unconscious, drag him into the toilet, and tie him up. On the other side of town, Lightfoot does the same thing to the alarms system guy, gagging him and leaving him knotted in ropes in the toilet. While Goody goes to pick up Lightfoot, Doherty and Leary assemble the gun, blast giant holes in the vault wall, and grab the loot. Goody and Lightfoot head to Montana Armored where they hook up with Doherty and Leary, load up the loot and take off, leaving the cannon behind. They plan to sit tight at the nearby drive-in, but they close the trunk on Leary so that his shirttail is hanging out and a fat, red-haired cashier spots it. While the cops converge on Montana Armored, the cashier and manager search the parking lot. Doherty pulls out of the drive-in before the cashier and the manager can bust them, but runs straight into the cops. A chase ensues and shots are fired. Goody and Leary are sprawled in the trunk and Goody dies from a gunshot wound. Leary dumps him on a back trail and then forces Doherty to pull over. He kicks Lightfoot repeatedly until the kid passes out and slugs Doherty. Making off with all the loot and a gun, Leary runs into a road block and the cops pursue him back into town.

Leary evades the cop temporarily, but he crashes into the storefront of the department store where he worked as a custodian. A guard dog attacks him and drags his body off as the authorities show up at the door and decide to leave the dog with its prize alone until the dog handler comes in the following morning. Meanwhile, Doherty gets Lightfoot back to where Leary pushed Goody out and they swap clothes so that Lightfoot is no longer dressed up in drag. Our heroes roam the hills and catch a ride in a pick-up and wind up getting out at the Warsaw exit. They stumble upon a roadside historical park where the one-room school house sits. Although they lost the loot from their robbery, they discover the loot from the original robbery still stashed behind the chalkboard. Doherty buys a Cadillac and picks up Lightfoot. Lightfoot got kicked too many times by Leary and he looks awful. He dies as they are driving through scenic Montana and the movie concludes on a dour note.

Cimino provides recurring comic relief scenes to lighten things up and a number of character actors, such as Gregory Walcott of “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” “Gunsmoke” veteran Dub Taylor as a gas station owner, Vic Tayback of “Alice,” and “Deliverance” redneck Bill McKinney as a psychotic who cruises around in a souped up car with white rabbits galore in his trunk, appear at intervals. “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” was one of the 1970s stick up movies where the robbers got away with the loot. Indeed, Lightfoot, Goody, and Red are punished, but Doherty gets away, largely because he had lost track of the original money and because he was the most sympathetic of all the robbers. “Thunderbolt & Lightfoot” is a brilliant, sometimes violent, often funny heist thriller that heist fanatics owe it to themselves to watch.

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