Cimino directed THE DEER HUNTER (1978) about a bunch of Pennsylvania steelworkers who fight in the Vietnam War. THE DEER HUNTER went on to win five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director and promised a new visionary auteur in Cimino. But Cimino's infamous follow-up HEAVEN'S GATE (1981), a western that went way over budget and nearly destroyed the studio United Artists would be Cimino's undoing. He's made a few films since then like YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985) and THE SUNCHASER (1996) but nothing that ever achieved the level of THE DEER HUNTER.
Cimino's promise as a director can be seen in his first directing opportunity, the robbery film THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. Cimino began as a writer and co-wrote with John Milius MAGNUM FORCE (1973), the second film in Eastwood's Dirty Harry Callahan series and one of my favorites. Eastwood must've liked Cimino's writing as he hired him to direct this offbeat film. I remember as a kid THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT being advertised on ABC's SUNDAY NIGHT MOVIE. The one clip that burned into my memory is Eastwood wearing protective goggles firing an enormous mini-cannon at a bank vault door. I had never seen a gun that big before and had no idea what the context of it was about.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is part robbery film, part buddy film, part road movie, and part western only set in modern times. The characters Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) are sort of like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid only less romantic and a bit quirkier. Like Butch and Sundance, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot discover that the encroachment of better technology is beginning to hamper their simple pursuit of robbing banks and armories. But one piece of technology (a 20mm cannon with armor piercing shells) will also help Thunderbolt and Lightfoot bust into a bank vault.
The film opens with a car pulling up next to a rural white church with a single steeple beside a wheat field. Inside, Thunderbolt (Eastwood), posing as a preacher, speaks to a small congregation. The driver of the car Dunlop (Roy Jenson) plans on killing Thunderbolt, his former heist partner. He begins firing at the pulpit and Thunderbolt bolts out the back of the church, racing for his life across the wheat field with Dunlop chasing after him. Nearby, Lightfoot (Bridges), a young good looking drifter in leather pants tries out a Camaro at a used car lot and decides to drive off without paying for it. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot's path will cross as Thunderbolt flags down the passing Camaro and Lightfoot briefly loses control, hitting the shooter Dunlop, accidentally killing him. Thunderbolt grabs onto the car as Lightfoot races away.
Both men are drifters, nowhere near living the American dream. Lightfoot wants a friend but Thunderbolt is weary. After robbing a husband and wife at a gas station, Thunderbolt breaks from Lightfoot, heading to the bus station for destination unknown when he sees his former Korean war buddy and ex-bank robbery partner Red Leary (George Kennedy). Thunderbolt quickly rejoins Lightfoot. They spend the night in a motel and Lightfoot picks up two pretty women for entertainment: Melody (TV'S DUKES OF HAZZARD'S Catherine Bach) and Gloria (June Fairchild). The next morning, as they leave a diner, Red and another member of the crew, driver Eddie Goody (Geoffrey Lewis), ambush Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. A chase ensues with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot managing to escape from Red and Goody. Lightfoot is curious about his new friend Thunderbolt and manages to get him to reveal that Thunderbolt, Red, Goody, Dunlop and the leader Billy Lamb robbed the Montana Armory two years earlier. They hid the money in an old school house that Lamb attended but then Lamb died, Thunderbolt laid low, and Red thought he got double-crossed. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot return to Warsaw, Montana to locate the old school house but it's gone, replaced by a newer modern school. As they get back into their car, Red and Goody are waiting in the backseat.
Like most robberies, the plan starts out fine with Thunderbolt and Red tying up the Vault Manager (Jack Dodson) and his family and getting the combination to the vault from him. Lightfoot, disguised as a woman, distracts the lecherous Fat Man (Cliff Emmich) who monitors all the alarms at the local Western Union office. Thunderbolt and Red get into the armory, set up the bazooka looking rifle, and blow the vault open. But the plan starts to fall apart during the getaway and Red double-crosses Thunderbolt and brutally beats up Lightfoot. The film ends with a satisfying but bittersweet ending.
Writer/director Cimino shows great control with camera and story in his directorial debut. He lays out the plot in an easy, straight-forward manner pausing to reveal quirks and back story to each character to make them more three dimensional. Cimino also has a great visual eye and uses the Montana locations to great effect. He often shoots big landscapes with humans as puny and insignificant in the foreground: Thunderbolt running across the immense wheat field as Dunlop chases him or Thunderbolt and Lightfoot riding the IDAHO DREAM river boat up a canyon.
At times, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT even gets a little surreal. I can't explain the Crazy Driver (Bill McKinney) who picks up a hitchhiking Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on a desolate Montana highway. He's got a caged raccoon in the passenger seat. He's pumping the exhaust from his muscle car back inside so he can get high. After he rolls the car with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot in it, he walks behind it to reveal a trunk full of rabbits. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are indeed like Alice, headed down the rabbit hole. Another nice surreal image is a garage door opening and a fleet of ice cream scooter trucks emerging from the garage like war planes on a flight deck, Goody driving one of them.
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is a perfect example of the films of the 1970's that probably couldn't get made today even with the star power of a Clint Eastwood. It's just a little too strange for today's audiences spoon fed on sequels and CGI special effects. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT has many influences besides BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. The doomed robbery in a small town with a gang of four echoes of Sam Peckinpah's THE GETAWAY (1972). The unlikely duo of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot brings to mind Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman in MIDNIGHT COWBOY (1969) especially with Bridges Lightfoot a younger, sexier version of Hoffman's Ratso Rizzo. Red Leary, Goody, and Dunlop in their black suits and dress pants and white shirts with ties may be where Quentin Tarantino got the inspiration for his bunch of criminal miscreants in RESERVOIR DOGS (1990). And what would a 70's film be without some car chases that were all the rage with VANISHING POINT and DIRTY MARY AND CRAZY LARRY. Cimino borrows from all these sources yet turns out a film that is still original and entertaining.
Clint Eastwood's Thunderbolt is in a way another of his Man With No Name roles he portrayed in Sergio Leone's western films. Thunderbolt is a criminal but Eastwood makes him likable. Red occasionally calls him John but his nickname from the Korean War was Thunderbolt. We don't know much about him except that he won the Silver Star in Korea. Both Thunderbolt and Red tell Lightfoot that that other man saved his life in the war. It's a sad statement that these two veterans who gave their service to the United States have become criminals. It may be a subtle jab at America's cold shoulder to returning Vietnam veterans. Korea was the first unpopular war where the mission wasn't crystal clear.
Even more enigmatic than Thunderbolt is Jeff Bridges' Lightfoot. He's a drifter, perhaps even a gigolo with no permanent family or male role model. His goal in life seems to be to earn someone's respect. Throughout the film, he tries to win Red's respect without success. When they pull off the Armory robbery, Lightfoot feels vindicated. "I feel we accomplished something. A good job. I feel proud of myself, man. I feel like a hero." Lightfoot's sexual orientation is a bit of a mystery. He flirts and cat calls to women, tells Thunderbolt he'll never pay for sex yet it's Thunderbolt not the younger, good looking Lightfoot we see consummate with one of the girls Lightfoot picks up. Lightfoot kisses Red on the mouth (albeit with his hand over Red's mouth) and dresses like a sleazy hooker to distract the Fat Man. It's a bold, daring performance by the young Bridges (son of actor Lloyd Bridges in case you didn't know).
Nearly stealing the film is George Kennedy as Red Leary. Leary is a multitude of things. He's sadistic yet child-like. He may be a sexual deviant yet he's loyal to a degree to Thunderbolt who may have saved his life in Korea. Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis as Goody have a nice rapport, at times resembling the Laurel and Hardy of criminals. Just like Eastwood liked and hired Cimino after his work on MAGNUM FORCE, Eastwood would work again with Kennedy the next year in the spy action film THE EIGER SANCTION (1975). Both Lewis and Bridges would also have roles in Cimino's HEAVEN'S GATE. But don't get too attached to these characters. Like the Christopher Walken character Nick in THE DEER HUNTER, Cimino has a fatalistic view toward some of his characters.
The women of THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT seem to be just eye candy in the film. Melody and Gloria, the waitress at the diner, the secretary at the welding shop,the girl on the motorcycle, even the exhibitionist housewife just titillate but play no major role in forwarding the story. The most important female role is played by Lightfoot when he dresses up as a woman to distract and take out the Fat Man before he can sound the alarm. Look for brief appearances in the film from a young Gary Busey (as Garey Busey) and Vic Tayback (from the TV show ALICE).
THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is a refreshing robbery film as it's not a super technological heist film like we see in many of today's films like TOWER HEIST (2011) or MAN ON A LEDGE (2012). THUNDERBOLT is a swan song to the good old days of bank robbery when just some muscle and a few guns (or a small cannon) was all it took to break open a safe. Just as Butch and the Sundance Kid begin to see the writing on the wall as the railroad built bigger safes and hired mercenaries to hunt them, Thunderbolt and Red realize their days as bank robbers are numbered.
CITIZEN KANE was Orson Welles first picture and his greatest triumph. His sophomore effort THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS sealed his fate as a difficult, out of control wunderkind. THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT was Cimino's first effort and showed great promise. He would follow up with a bigger and grander THE DEER HUNTER as his sophomore effort and the world seemed his oyster. It took his third effort HEAVEN'S GATE (which isn't nearly as bad as critics make it out to be) to send Cimino tumbling back to earth. The cinema gods are not kind to visionaries. But at least we have these two directors early, best efforts to remind us of what could have been.