Had Michael Cimino not killed New Hollywood with the financial disaster of Heaven’s Gate, he might have eventually unmasked the movement anyway, exposing this supposedly new style of filmmaking as nothing more than the old way with a dirtier face. His debut feature, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, illustrates this in spades: One of the many intended cash-ins on Easy Rider’s success, the film reverses the nature of other counterculture road movies. Though it begins with sweeping, Fordian vistas and ends in muted, existential despair, the film is less a deconstruction of Americana imagery by the intrusion of the real than a study of human interaction that reinforces, if tragically, its classical formalism and iconography.
As such, the film’s pairing of old and young functions not as a commentary on the generation gap or the trading of an antiquated set of values for a newer one, but as a means of drawing out their parallels. Certainly Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) are introduced as contrasts: black-clad Thunderbolt hunched over the pulpit of a church, the sunlight glinting off his glasses further obscuring him, while Lightfoot, decked out in bright, post-hippie patterns and pleats, practically materializes just outside the dealership where he jacks a car. Once thrown together, however, their rapport becomes a juxtaposition of different personalities voicing the same core being. Bridges brings his off-kilter sense of humor to his role, while Eastwood remains more taciturn, but both characters are sardonic, shrewd robbers, desirous of a payday for the same reason, to finally be able to just buy something of their own. It’s a dream so myopic, so survivalist, that it transcends an identifiable political slant even as it epitomizes the microeconomic impact of politics on the poor across generations.
The old/young distinctions that the pair blur are further eroded by other characters. Stopping at a gas station where they will steal their next car, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot make pleasantries with the grouchy, old attendant, who responds to the casual “How’s business?” with an extended rant on not only his own financial insecurity, but the vast mirage of the American economy, held in place solely by the whims of “a little ol’ lady with $79.25.” In the modestly sized Montana town where the duo plan a heist, joined by Thunderbolt’s vengeful former partners Red (George Kennedy) and Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis), a department store owner keeps guard dogs so vicious that they will leap through glass to kill an unknown, the sort of crime prevention far more befitting a modern urban dystopia than a small oasis in the hills. Red and Eddie, for all their outspoken reference to Lightfoot as a kid, themselves revert to pubescent adolescence when Lightfoot tells them of a housewife coming to her door nude, their questions sounding like those of teenage virgins, not hardened crooks.
Eastwood, who originally wanted to direct Thunderbolt and Lightfoot himself, gave screenwriter Cimino a chance behind the camera, and the director showcases an innate ability for reflecting subtext in form. The film doesn’t turn a blind eye to the passage of time and its attendant changes, yet it never undermines the expansiveness of its visuals. As with John Ford, Cimino in his prime had an uncanny ability to make location backdrops an extension of characters’ internal thoughts and thematic conflicts, as well as a projection of their mythic force of will.
Of all the ’70s road movies, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot may be the only one in which the characters find themselves. Unfortunately for them, their true selves are corrosive and unsustainable, a grim truth borne out in one of the most disturbing deaths in American film, in which one of the characters neither suffers a moral reckoning nor finds dignity in death à la Shane, but instead powers down like a machine with a dying battery. His end is one of inevitability, retroactively casting the film’s elemental masculine friendship as a catalyst for the demise of these iconic beings. So many westerns conclude with the hero riding off alone into the sunset; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot suggests they’d die otherwise.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray comes with a handsome transfer, ably preserving the mid-’70s quality of the film with a healthy amount of grain and less softness than is common to so many films of the era. Michael Cimino shot the film according to Clint Eastwood’s multiple take-averse production method, but the striking clarity and stylization of his and cinematographer Frank Stanley’s compositions and vistas comes out in the disc. The accompanying mono track unfortunately buries any background noise and is generally quiet even when reproducing dialogue and Foley effects, but this is almost certainly a feature of the film’s default sound, and there are no pops or other aural errors to speak of with the disc’s audio.
Customary for Twilight Time releases, the disc comes with an isolated score track and a theatrical trailer, but of far greater value is the commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and screenwriter Lem Dobbs. The trio point out the myriad character actors who crop up in the film and contextualize its role in the careers of the leads and director. Their talk often anchors itself to Robin Wood’s reading of the film’s homoerotic subtext, providing just enough academic consideration to prevent their lighter moments from becoming too chummy and distracted. Kirgo also contributes a brief essay for the accompanying booklet.
One of the best road movies of the 1970s, and the auspicious debut of one of the decade’s best directors, arrives on Blu-ray with its intimate majesty impeccably preserved.