Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Directed by Michael Cimino
Wednesday, June 13 at 92YTribeca's "Jeff Bridges, Before the Dude"
Michael Cimino's furious debut, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, serves up a lot of action, but it's never so busy it can't stop for a cup of coffee. It's a self-conscious-by-more-than-half love story between Clint Eastwood's jaded, cleaned-up safecracker Thunderbolt, and then-24-year-old Jeff Bridges's Lightfoot ("Indian?" "Naw, just American"), a moon-faced con artist who wants, badly, to hitch his wagon to the older guy's. The movie's clear-eyed homoeroticism—as opposed to the messier, more arguable homoeroticism in its Western antecedents—is a badge of New Hollywood ardor. (Producing here, Eastwood hand-picked Cimino for the job.) As always in buddy action films, the delirious encounter is less happenstance than a force of destiny.
Eastwood, passing himself off as a small-town preacher, is interrupted mid-sermon by shotgun fire. Sprinting across a lonely wheat field, he flags down a dirty white Mustang and holds on to the roof, slowly working himself through the window; the driver is Bridges, howling maniacally while he swerves on and off the gravel. For a while, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has the same cock-shy attitude towards comedy as Eastwood does towards Bridges, but the younger actor's tenderness is almost hyper-realistically disarming. When Eastwood tries calling it quits, Bridges chides him: "I don't want your watch, man! I want your friendship. Goddammit, I like you, that's all." Eastwood walks off anyway, and Bridges yells from the car: "YOU'RE AS YOUNG AS YOU FEEL!"
Breaking up and getting back together are all part of the deal. Eventually the guys with the guns catch up to our heroes, and it turns out they're former accomplices after the cash from a job Thunderbolt masterminded ten years earlier. When it turns out he doesn't have it, all four men immediately find themselves sitting on a river bank rubbing their aches and cursing, the telephoto zoom gently wobbling up and down; the sudden flipping of bad guys into buddies is the movie's funniest philosophical conceit. For a solid 25 minutes the film becomes an implacable rush towards one last heist, with the guys taking day jobs while suiting up to crack the biggest private security firm in small-town Montana. George Kennedy's wheezing, sadistic ex-military thief lives halfway between boyhood and total ossification; working as an ice cream vendor, he disgustedly tells a dissatisfied young customer, "Look, kid, go fuck a duck."
Some of this stuff dates pretty badly: any portrayal of women comes off as depressingly churlish, and in both gags and dialogue there's really no such thing as too naughty—a telling 70s hallmark. There are some discernable traces of Cimino's later films—precarious car chases spliced into tranquil landscapes that hold forever, or tight closeups of midwestern grotesques grinning well beyond the moment where a normal studio-designated edit would've taken place. The action sequences are really and truly breathtaking. But it's perhaps most intriguing to see a vintage Eastwood character—as ever, a stodgy slab of stiff-necked obsidian—reeking of both misanthropy and -ogyny, philosophically bankrupt and opaque beyond spoken dialogue. His friendship with Lightftoot runs so deep that together, they're ineffable—in every sense of the word. Haven't we all been there?