When we recorded this week’s Shouts From the Back Row podcast about heist movies, I surprised my colleagues by mentioning that a heist film existed which starred both Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. How could a film featuring such a dream pairing not be that well known? Well, in 1974, a buddy story featuring those two stars named Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was released into theaters and while it did decent enough business at the box office, it was probably too quirky and offbeat to find a large audience. The film is generally light-hearted, but does contain some surprisingly dark moments, and given who wrote and directed it, it’s somehow both surprising and not surprising how offbeat the whole thing is. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot was the directorial debut of Michael Cimino and his original spec script for the project was initially going to be directed by Clint Eastwood. However, Eastwood was impressed by the script re-writes Cimino had performed on the Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force, and decided to hand him the directorial reins. After this project, Cimino would go on to massive success and Academy Award recognition by directing The Deer Hunter and then pretty much went insane and destroyed his career by directing one of the biggest bombs of all time, Heaven’s Gate. Like I stated before, given Cimino’s pretentious reputation and the ultra-serious nature of his later work, it’s surprising just how goofy and fun Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is and you can never really predict what the film is going to do next.
The opening scenes of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot instantly establish the film’s wild, unpredictable tone. Clint Eastwood plays a former bank robber nicknamed “The Thunderbolt” because he once used a 20-millimeter cannon to break into a safe. Thunderbolt now works as a preacher in a church in the middle of rural Montana and is in the midst of giving a sermon when a mysterious assassin suddenly appears in and tries to gun him down. The assassin chases after Thunderbolt , whose life is suddenly saved when his assailant is inadvertently run down by a young man named Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). It turns out that Lightfoot is an off-the-wall, but generally good-natured drifter who just stole his vehicle from a used car lot. Thunderbolt hitches a ride with him and the two men inexplicably become an odd couple buddy team. It’s soon revealed that the assassin was hired by two members of Thunderfoot’s old gang, the terminally surly Red Leary (George Kennedy) and the dim-witted Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), who believe that Thunderfoot betrayed them many years ago and hid some stolen loot from a bank robbery. In spite of these initial tensions, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wind up reconciling with these two antagonists and once they realize that they can’t recover the hidden loot from the previous job, the four men wind up joining forces to pull off a new heist that involves robbing the same bank that they had hit before.
Needless to say, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is one of the most unusual bank robbery films you will ever see. Cimino is clearly less interested in detailing the specifics of the heist than with putting his characters in every hilarious situation and wacky adventure that he can dream up. The relationship between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot simply comes about because it’s the most convenient thing for both men at the time, but they develop a genuine bond and Eastwood and Bridges have terrific chemistry together. Eastwood gives one of his more entertaining performances and has great support from George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis, but this is Jeff Bridges’ film all the way. Bridges had already established himself as one of the best young actors in Hollywood after his memorable turns in such films as The Last Picture Show and Fat City, and even though Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is not a film you’d expect to see recognized at Oscar time, Bridges’ performance was memorable enough to garner him his second career Academy Award nomination. In his commentary about this film at the “Trailers From Hell” website, Edgar Wright makes a great point when he says that Lightfoot resembles a younger version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Indeed, Lightfoot is an incredibly laid-back, carefree person who only worries about having a good time and you can believe that if he scored enough money so that he didn’t have to work for the rest of his life, he WOULD become just like The Dude! Anyway, the structure of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is very episodic as the two protagonists often have offbeat encounters with bizarre characters which have nothing to do with the main plot, but are hilarious nonetheless. The film’s most famous scene is this encounter with a deranged rabbit collector (played by Bill McKinney, the guy who made Ned Beatty squeal like a pig in Deliverance), which will make you laugh hysterically for reasons you cannot explain.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot involves many moments like that where a colourful supporting character will pop up on screen for a few moments, garner some laughs and then just disappear. A young Gary Busey (mistakenly credited here as “Garey Busey”) even pops up in a brief role as a co-worker on a landscaping job that Lightfoot takes. Even though it’s often very funny, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot really is an acquired taste and many viewers will be probably be surprised by its rather dark, unconventional ending. If this film were made today, it would likely not conclude in such a strange fashion. Clint Eastwood was very disappointed by the film’s underwhelming performance and felt that United Artists mismanaged the promotion of the film. Even though United Artists had helped propel Eastwood to stardom by distributing his “Man With No Name” trilogy of spaghetti westerns in the 1960s, he vowed never to work with them again. Indeed, you may have noticed the ominous music they played during the original theatrical trailer doesn’t really fit Thunderbolt and Lightfoot at all. It makes the film look like a straightforward crime thriller and doesn’t provide any hint of the film’s sense of humour and comedic interaction between the characters. Indeed, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is less a crime thriller and more of a mediation on the theme of male camaraderie, and it helped lay the groundwork for the many buddy action-comedy flicks that have been released since. Regardless of what you think the film’s intentions are, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is still a hell of a lot fun and remains highly underrated today. Fans of both Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are highly advised to check it out as it remains of the most hidden gems in their long and storied careers. If you don’t like the film… well, just follow the advice that George Kennedy provides here.