We open big in the Big Open of rural Montana, where a young drifter manages to flim-flam his way into a new car, duping a small-town dealer into a permanent test drive. Meanwhile, not far away, a pastor holds sway over his small congregation in an old clapboard church, dug in like a tick on the side of a lonely road, that could probably double as a box for matches the other six days of the week. But this portrait of bucolic serenity is suddenly and viciously interrupted by the intrusion of an armed stranger, who quickly aerates the church. His true target soon becomes clear as the man seems hell-bent on putting a slug into the fleeing preacher, who quickly abandons the pulpit and his flock as he breaks for the horizon on foot in a bid to stave off a permanent case of lead-poisoning.
Salvation comes with the serendipitous arrival of the young drifter, who hits the pursuing gunman while trying to avoid running over his intended victim. Finding it odd that someone would want to gun down a man of the cloth, Lightfoot (Bridges) eventually coaxes the truth out of the “preacher” (Eastwood) after they flee the scene together. Seems this man he inadvertently rescued is none other than John Doherty, the notorious “Thunderbolt”, a gaudy moniker coined by the local press for a daring robbery pulled-off several years back where they used a 20mm anti-tank cannon to blow a hole into an otherwise impregnable vault and made off with nearly a half a million dollars. After the completion of this successful heist the team of robbers split up, the loot safely hidden away in an abandoned one-room schoolhouse to be recovered and divvied up later after the heat has long died down, with the Thunderbolt patiently marking time, hiding in plain sight, posing as a pastor.
And a solid plan it was, too, until, in an effort to heat up this cold case, the authorities recently leaked a false report that the money had been recovered; and since Thunderbolt was the only one left alive who knows where the loot was hidden (-- the ringleader having recently died of a heart attack), the other three surviving partners, figuring he ratted them out to the cops, are now gunning for him (-- well, the last two, now, since Lightfoot accidentally ran one over), leaving Red Leary (Kennedy), an old friend and fellow Korean war vet (-- explaining the familiarity with the military-grade weapon), who is also a complete psychopath, and his toady, the slightly incompetent, nearly incontinent, and wardrobe-challenged, Eddie Goody (Lewis), to finish the job.
Thus and so, with romantic outlaw notions dancing in his otherwise empty head and the potential of a life with easy access cash, Lightfoot is soon determined to learn the tricks of the trade from the older, reluctant, and claiming to be retired thief. And as they dodge several brazen assassination attempts from Leary, they make a play for the stash of money only to find the schoolhouse gone, apparently demolished to make way for a new, more modern facility. They are then abducted at gunpoint and driven to a remote area to be executed. But the brutish Leary wants his pound of flesh first. And then somehow, between punches, Thunderbolt manages to convince his former partners (neither the brightest bulb in the world) that the cops lied and how the money is now gone, either destroyed or in someone else's pocket. And as an uneasy truce settles and these three men fume over this misfortunate ending to an otherwise perfect caper, Lightfoot has a sudden brainstorm and a solution to all of their problems, suggesting, Why don’t they all just team up and pull the exact same heist off again...
Before it cratered after he became the architect of one of the biggest boondoggles in Hollywood history, the meteoric trajectory of Michael Cimino's film career began with pitching-in on the script for Silent Running (1972), Douglas Trumbull's impassioned sci-fi plea for environmental conservation -- you know, the one with Bruce Dern and those adorable robots, which he co-wrote with Deric Washburn and Steven Bochco. This was immediately followed up with a script-doctoring assignment, where he and John Milius were brought in to punch up Harry and Rita Fink’s script for Magnum Force (1973), the first sequel to the wildly popular Dirty Harry (1971), which had helped cement Clint Eastwood’s reputation as a leading man, a sure-fire box-office draw, and a giant pain in the ass. Or as director Ted Post put it while shooting Magnum Force, “Clint’s ego began to apply for statehood."
Apparently, Eastwood liked the changes Cimino made to Magnum Force, and so, with that in mind, Stanley Kamen, an agent for William Morris, pitched an idea he thought was tailor-made for Eastwood -- a crime-caper, filled with women, booze, and manly men being manly men -- to Cimino, hoping he could flesh out this spec-vehicle for a package deal for several of his clients, Eastwood and Bridges included, to tackle next. This, the writer did, drawing inspiration from one of his favorite films, essentially making Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) a loose remake of Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot (1955), a swashbuckling adventure which focused on a young highwayman who joins up with a grizzled pirate (Rock Hudson, Jeff Morrow) who steal money to support the Irish revolution, which he then combined with the popular existential road movies of the day like Vanishing Point (1971) and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), and then he even chucked in a few elements from Eastwood’s earlier heist movie, the hilarious and harrowing Kelly’s Heroes (1970), which as a comedy is a pretty good war movie and as a war movie it's a pretty good comedy and, hands down, my favorite heist movie of all time.
Now, the end result of this mash-up makes the film hard to classify exactly. As Anthony Moretta states in his essay, Redheads and Pistachio Ice Cream, “Cimino crafts a heist flick inside a road movie built around a buddy film that is funny, poignant, tense and sad. It’s also allegorical [in that] the title characters are symbolic of the human cycle. Birth, reclamation, re-birth, redemption, death, and all of the good and not so good in between.” Heady stuff, indeed, but what really mattered is that Eastwood loved the script; and loved it so much he wanted to make it his next directing project after Play Misty for Me (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973). Here, the film ran into its first snag as Cimino would not sell the script unless he was allowed to direct it. Eastwood agreed to a meeting with the brash and cocky wannabe director and listened to his pitch, the two hit it off, and the actor agreed to let Cimino direct the picture on the condition the film fell under the umbrella of his own production company, Malpaso, which led to the second big snag in the film’s origin.
Seems Kamen had already pitched the proposed vehicle to Warner Bros., who normally helped finance and distribute Malpaso’s product; but they turned it down flat, feeling it wasn’t marketable as an Eastwood picture. When the actor got wind of this, in a fit of temper, he quickly struck a two picture deal with United Artists. And after scouting out several scenic locations in Montana, filming commenced. And while Robert Daley was officially listed as producer, Eastwood wasn’t shy about calling the shots and reining in his novice director, who was already showing signs of the obsessive perfectionism that would be his undoing on Heaven’s Gate (1980). Three takes was usually all he got before Eastwood shut him down. And if another actor asked for a fourth take, Cimino would have to ask his star if it was okay first.
Despite these obstacles, to this very day the eccentric director has high praise for Eastwood, saying he owes his career to the chance he took on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. And while there was some friction behind the scenes, in front of the camera the chemistry just crackles between Eastwood and Bridges, who play off of each other so well in a father / son, sensei / student sense in this hard-boiled backwater noir. From the very beginning of shooting Eastwood sensed that Bridges was constantly upstaging him, which he kinda does; but this stays in perfect tune with their characters with the exuberant, proto-Dude Lightfoot and the too old for this shit, worn down to the nub Thunderbolt. And to Eastwood’s credit, he let Bridges get away with this. But when Bridges would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, this really annoyed his co-star, who felt he deserved a nod, too. Maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t, but what most people tend to overlook with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is how George Kennedy (and to a lesser extent, Geoffrey Lewis) stole the film right out from under the both of them. Because it is my opinion that Kennedy’s Red Leary is the backbone on which this film draws its true strength from, which is why I picked him, out of a film filled with nothing but charismatic villains, as my spotlight choice for The Great Villain Blogathon.
Now, those of you who are scoffing, pull up a chair and hear me out. First off, I love George Kennedy, whose presence tends to elevate anything and everything he gets involved with. Usually a second or third banana, it didn’t matter; the guy was a true professional and always left his mark be it a classic like Charade (1964), or as my man Patroni in the Airport franchise (1970, '75, '77 and '79), or exploitation classics like tick...tick...tick... (1970) or delightful trash like Savage Dawn (1985) or Nightmare at Noon (1988). And while he didn’t do it often, when Kennedy actually got to play the bad guy he showed an incredible penchant for violence, a terrifying sadistic streak, and a true sense of place as to where this anger and hatred comes from that needs to be pointed out and treasured. Remember his take as the conniving handy-man who made the mistake of trying to blackmail Joan Crawford in Straight-Jacket (1964)? Or how about that time he played that right bastard of a deputy in Lonely Are the Brave (1962); or that time he took an axe-handle to the face to prevent him from gleefully drowning a man in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)? Hell, the man deservedly won an Academy Award as the degenerate Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967). And then there’s Red Leary.
On top of all those other influences, there’s also a lot of Donald Westlake in Cimino’s script for Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: a certain implied code of conduct between criminals, the intricate planning, the long drawn out staging, and then the execution of the crime itself, leavened with a ton of quirky characters, salted with bits of humor and comical errors like a Dortmunder caper and then punctuated by the harsh eruptions of violence of a Parker plot when things go awry.
Early in the film Thunderbolt gives his protege a brief rundown on Leary: he’s been in prison on multiple occasions, once for stabbing a woman, another for a botched robbery. He’s someone you’d want to have in your platoon but you’d never want to be on his bad side. I’m telling ya, Kennedy really makes this repellent sonofabitch tick, easily sliding between comical buffoon to vile neanderthal. He’s mercurial, which makes him highly unpredictable, which, of course, makes him all the more dangerous.
Unfortunately for Lightfoot, Leary takes an immediate disliking to him. This matter is then exacerbated by Lightfoot’s constant taunts as they set-up the second heist, which must be slightly adjusted since their electronics expert was accidentally run over and killed in the first reel. All four men get menial jobs to build up a stake to get the equipment needed to pull off the heist, which leads to one of my favorite scenes in the film where Leary and Goody, posing as an ice cream man, are confronted by some snot-nosed punk, who is promptly told by Leary “To go f@ck a duck.”
In film parlance, these are the schmucks you need around to make the heroes seem more heroic. And when you team the volatile Leary up with the nebbish Goody, in a bizarre take on Laurel and Hardy (-- I love the constant, terse, one-sided exchange of "What do we do now, Red" and “Shut up, Goody”), you have the perfect foils for our title characters.
Aside from the spry Lightfoot, you’d be hard pressed to believe that these sad, old, broken down men could organize and pull off directions to a grocers let alone a bank heist but pull it off they do, like clockwork, including a fairly hilarious bit with Lightfoot in drag to seduce and subdue an obese clerk who monitors the alarms. And while the robbery itself goes off without a hitch it is during the getaway where everything falls apart as old animosities bubble to the surface, fueled by adrenaline, and they are betrayed by a simple sneeze and an untucked shirt tail.
Here, Leary proves the weak-link when the wheels fall off. In the build-up to the robbery, this ticking time-bomb stupidly exposes his face to more properly gawk at two naked teenagers in the middle of intercourse at the bank manager's house before taking them hostage. And when the alarm is raised on them as they try to hide in plain sight at a Drive-In theater, not for being suspects in the nearby robbery, but on suspicion of sneaking people in hidden in the trunk, and they make their break, Goody is shot in the back. And without hesitation, Leary coldly tosses him out of the car, leaving him to die alone on a dirt road. He then turns on his other two partners, pistol-whipping his old friend Thunderbolt before laying a savage beat-down on Lightfoot, including several kicks to the head. He then abandons them in a pasture, taking the car and the money and hotfoots onto the highway. But there’s no way out as the dragnet herds him back into town, where he eventually wrecks the sedan into the department store where he had worked as a janitor and subsequently “gets his” as he is torn apart by another vicious animal when one of the guard dogs attack and mauls him to death.
But even in death the specter of Red Leary still looms large as the film reaches its final coda. For, while Thunderbolt and Lightfoot manage to get away, they get away empty-handed and there’s something obviously wrong with the younger man, who is still feeling the effect of Leary’s big kiss-off. But karma seems to come around again when they’re dumped off in the middle of nowhere where it just so happens a one-room schoolhouse was moved en masse and re-planted as a folksy tourist attraction. Dumbstruck, the men manages to scare off the other tourists and, sure enough, the money from the original heist is still there. But there will be no happy ending, or drives into the sunset for our two heroes. Instead, Leary manages to stomp a mudhole in the viewer’s chest when Lightfoot’s sustained injuries cause a fatal stroke, just as he was thanking his one and only friend for this grand adventure and share a victory cigar. “Thunderbolt is the only one of the crew that gets away unscathed,” says Morretta. “But he has to carry Lightfoot’s death with him. Unfair and unprovoked. This is the snake that slithers underneath and is embraced by the ’70s.” A haunting end that only reinforces the indelible impact of one Red Leary.
When the film was released, audiences were equally bummed out by that ending. And while the film did respectable box-office it failed to live up to Dirty Harry or Magnum Force standards. For this, Eastwood put the blame on the poor promotions of United Artists, which officially scuttled any notion of a follow up feature, which was also supposed to be written and directed by Cimino. But don’t feel too bad, he landed on his feet well enough with a little something called The Deer Hunter (1978).
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot would eventually achieve Cult Movie status, too, and with good reason. All of the acting is superb, even though most of the other roles were nothing more than drive-bys. (Look for Dub Taylor as an apocalyptic gas station attendant, Gary Busey as lawncare specialist, and Catherine Bach as a reluctant hooker, and oh, holy crap, that interlude with the bumpkin and the bunnies.) But it’s Cimino’s burgeoning talent that really puts a stamp on this thing. His style is like a John Severin cartoon, highly stylized and yet photo-realistic with an intoxicating tone that is both nurturing and fatalistic -- with a true sense of bitterness, even insignificance when the actors and action are dwarfed by the gorgeous natural surroundings. (Ansel Adams by way of Jim Thompson, maybe?) The film has a visual pace of a raconteur painting a verbal picture with ten to twenty dollar words. (The opening shot is purple mountains majesty and amber waves of grain fer cripesake.) And while it feels slow -- patient is a better word, the film is still a lightning fast two-hour trip. Kino Lorber has it out on DVD now at a very reasonable price, and the picture looks so good I can only boggle as to what the Bluray must look like.
And thanks to that ending, I clearly remember my first encounter with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot as kid in the 1970s, catching it as a movie of the week on the old family Zenith. It made me so mad and very upset and it didn’t make sense. It wasn't fair. I also remember hating Red Leary for doing what he did; for ruining the movie. But as the years have gone by I’ve softened on him a bit. I understand him now. I get it. He didn’t ruin it. He made this movie go. He made it work. He’s still an asshole, but he’s a necessary asshole. All good villains have an impact. The great ones also leave a mark. Red Leary manages both.
Sources: Redheads and Pistachio Ice Cream (Anthony Moretta); Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven's Gate, the Film that Sank United Artists (Steven Bach); American Rebel: The Life of Clint Eastwood (Marc Eliot).
This post is my contribution to The Great Villain Blogathon, which was concocted and schemed by the fine folks at Silver Screenings, Speakeasy, and Shadows and Satin. Thanks to our gracious hosts for throwing out such a wide net for contributions. And I encourage you all to follow the linkage and check out all the other great entries, please and thank you.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) The Malpaso Company :: United Artists / P: Robert Daley / D: Michael Cimino / W: Michael Cimino / C: Frank Stanley / E: Ferris Webster / M: Dee Barton / S: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, Bill McKinney, Jack Dodson