' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Friday, June 21, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

“Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” begins with the camera trained on an Idaho wheat field looking out toward a mountain vista, emitting a feeling of timelessness, far away from everything. This, we eventually learn, is precisely why Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), infamous bank robber whose preference for using an autocannon to crack a safe departs severely from normal safecracking methodology, has come here to drop out of society by masquerading as preacher to a small congregation. The scene in which we see him ministering feels like an inside joke; see Clint Eastwood in a cleric’s collar! But that collar gets removed right quick when a few enemies show up looking for money they are owed, apparently having ferreted out his ruse, and sending him running through those very same wheat fields, interrupting their idyll. That he escapes is only because Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) happens to be passing by in a Trans-Am on a dirt road, allowing Thunderbolt to hitch a ride. Turns out these enemies of Thunderbolt’s are old cohorts who want money their owed and which the faux-man of the cloth has apparently stashed in, nodding to a bygone era, a one-room schoolhouse whose exact location proves elusive.

If Cimino’s film culminates with an invasion of an Idaho armory, it is never quite as spectacular as that sounds, content to meander along at its own pace, emblemized in the sequence where we see just how Lightfoot came to be in possession of this Trans Am – that is, by stealing it. But if it’s a robbery, it hardly feels like one, him getting behind the wheel of the car and conversing with the salesman, Bridges playing the moment less like a thief than a wonky consumer who’s trying to make up his mind in the moment whether to just drive the car right off the lot. Why once the two men become highway companions, it still takes at least half an hour before Lightfoot even broaches the possibility of a bank robbery, though even then it sounds impromptu, not a plan hatched but an idea just loosely mentioned, underscored by how its recounted in long shot, making it feel unceremonious. And this speaks to how Cimino, though he doubles as screenwriter, makes the wide-open locales and accompanying visuals half the point, evoking the lyricism of an American road trip, frequently capturing his characters under blue skies, like a hitchhiking scene where even as Cimino keeps his camera low, it doesn’t feel as if the two men are looming over us so much as the atmosphere looms over them. Even when the duo brawls with their pursuing enemies, Cimino allows them a catch-their-breath interval alongside a creek in a panoramic ravine.

When those enemies – Red (George Kennedy) and Eddie (Geoffrey Lewis) – do eventually catch up to Thunderbolt, and by extension Lightfoot, they demand what they are owed, only to be informed the money has gone missing because the schoolhouse has too. That leads to Thunderbolt suggesting a copycat of the armory heist he’s pulled once before to pay what’s owed. As elsewhere, however, Cimino chooses against rushing into things, lingering over the four men taking jobs to fund their operation to humorous effect, never more than a shot of Eddie, having taken a job peddling ice cream, emerging from a garage aboard his little ice cream scooter alongside several others, like a Bizarro World version of Brando’s “Wild One” motorcycle gang, stripping the sheen off any idea of these men as romantic outlaws.

Cimino skewers the very idea of romance too. Rarely are women glimpsed in “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” except as objects of lusty affection, and almost always through Red, whether his sweaty mug is listening to Lightfoot recount his glimpse of an unclothed woman or, in a moment involving the heist, walking in on a couple young lovebirds and, despite the situation’s prevailing urgency, spending a few seconds just watching. This is consciously contrasted against Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, where Bridges frequently has his character look longingly toward Eastwood’s in such a way to muddy the lines between paternal and carnal, looks that Eastwood receives coolly, acknowledging the deeper meaning without necessarily offending his no doubt masculine audience. Then again, one element of the heist involves Lightfoot donning a dress, and when he and Thunderbolt cruise into a drive-in, as if on a date, to briefly hide out, the implications are laid bare. So too are they when Red, as the heist goes belly up, gives Lightfoot a beating within an inch of his life, as if reestablishing heteronormativity through violence.

There is wicked irony in the heist not being new, merely a copycat of an earlier heist. If Cimino’s eventual cinematic boondoggle “Heaven’s Gate” returned to the start of American expansion westward then “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” picks up where expansion has essentially hit a brick wall, nowhere else to go but back to the same well. And even if Thunderbolt and Lightfoot make it out of the heist alive, and then locate the schoolhouse with the stashed money, the building’s location, having been moved and turned into a historical site, betrays the idea of the world moving on from and closing in on these two men. It’s telling that they drive off not into a sunset but toward the mountains, as if their destiny is simply to vanish among them, brought home in Lightfoot’s fate, a virtuoso bit of physical acting by Bridges where, his character apparently suffering the after-effects of a savage beating by Red, he improbably evinces the notion of all life exiting his body, transforming the words he spouts about feeling like a “hero” into a last-gasp effort to give his demise some sort of happy meaning, exposing it as cruelly meaningless.

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