REDHEADS AND PISTACHIO ICE CREAM
Spiritual bonding in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Let me start by confessing that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) is one of my all-time favorite films. Written and directed by Michael Cimino. His first movie. It stars Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.
Eastwood plays Thunderbolt (a media-coined moniker after a big-score robbery). He’s a Korean war hero and semi-retired professional bank thief, posing as a minister and running for his life from a former partner who shows up at church with a machine gun, ripping up the place. Bridges plays Lightfoot, a young aimless drifter who appears seemingly out of nowhere in black leather pants and drives a Trans-Am right off a used car dealer’s lot. He just happens to come upon the scene, running over Thunderbolt’s would-be assassin and saving his life. An injured Thunderbolt hitches a ride with Lightfoot and they speed away to a nearby quarry where Thunderbolt pops his shoulder back into the socket. Looking for kicks and safely assuming that Thunderbolt is no preacher, Lightfoot takes an immediate liking and nudges Thunderbolt to tell his story. Turns out that Thunderbolt’s associates are convinced he made off with the $500,000 they stole from a Montana bank. Truth is the loot was hidden behind a blackboard of a one-room schoolhouse in a no-place town. The last two of Thunderbolt’s crew – gentle getaway driver Goody (Geoffrey Lewis) and bigmouth gunman Red (George Kennedy) – are hot on their trail across the badlands.
They swap cars with a couple at a gas station and Lightfoot picks up two women (one of whom is a redhead named Melody, played by Catherine Bach). Initially hesitant, Thunderbolt begins to take Lightfoot under his wing and they form a relationship seeking spoils, but it’s supported by a genuine fondness and some father-son, big brother-little brother mixed in. When they check the spot out, they discover that a new school has been built in place of the old schoolhouse and believe the money is now gone forever. Enjoying some ice cream while weighing their next move, Goody and Red catch up and take them by gunpoint to a desolate river bank. A clumsy and hilarious fist-fight ensues, and Thunderbolt gets the best of them. Gasping and sweating like pigs, the three aging crooks and the new hotshot take a breather and come clean to each other. The money is lost and Lightfoot spearheads a new plan to rob the bank again, the same way as before.
With Thunderbolt on his side, Lightfoot’s heist is met with curiosity and greed by Red and Goody. They’re all in. They get some low-profile menial jobs, stake out the target and unload the anti-tank cannon used to blow through the vault. Lightfoot ties up the horny alarm guard while dressed in drag, Thunderbolt and Red bag the cash, and Goody mans the wheels. The plan is to wait out the police at a local drive-in theater, with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot acting the part as a couple, Goody and Red tucked in the trunk with the loot. It’s all working as planned until the redheaded box office cashier at the drive-in hears Red’s sneeze and spots his shirttail hanging out of the trunk. Cops are called in while the theater manager and cashier search the lot. The gang bolts and the cops chase. A shotgun blast pierces the trunk and hits Goody. Red pushes Goody out onto the road and then draws his gun on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot after pulling off into the weeds to duck the police. Red unleashes a hate-filled beat down on Lightfoot and splits with the car and dough, but doesn’t get very far into town. He takes a cop’s bullet and gets cornered in a department store, only to be mauled by the shop’s vicious guard dog.
Broke and beaten, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot are left on their own to make their way out of Montana and come across the one-room schoolhouse that was moved to a highway site as a tourist attraction. Banking on sheer luck, Thunderbolt unscrews the blackboard while Lightfoot keeps a lookout. To their amazement, the money is all there. They buy a white Cadillac convertible and drive off. But Lightfoot begins to exhibit some strange behavior. His left side goes weak and his speech is slurred. He passes away in the passenger seat, victory cigar still in his mouth. A sullen Thunderbolt continues on with his dead friend next to him.
There’s no easy classification for this. 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. I don’t mean to get all heady with this review. I mean 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.
Lightfoot bursts onto the screen. He’s all smiles and semen and good times. He’s the child shot out of a dark well into the world’s sunlight. He wears leather pants, then white pants and sky blue socks. He’s the guy in drag when they rob the bank. He believes in stuff like bad luck redheads and eats his pistachio ice cream like a brat kid, trying to fit the whole scoop into his mouth. And we’re never sure if he actually banged Melody. We only see him all nervous afterwards. Maybe he’s new to pleasure or still thinks girls have cooties.
Thunderbolt is the hardened old-timer. His ribs torn out through his nostrils and his heart beating a little slower these days. He escaped death and the law and has nothing to show for it. He looks like he’d rather be a million miles away when the chick rides him on the couch and isn’t fazed by the hot diner waitress. He’s been there, done that, went back and did it again. Maybe Thunderbolt has lost his nerve because nothing inflames him like robbing banks. Banks he’s getting too old and isolated to rob. But Lightfoot is a streak of energy, meaning to inject some life back into Thunderbolt. He makes it clear that he’s not interested in the money. Lightfoot just likes him.
The only way this crazy story works is in a crazy place far from everywhere. That’s exactly what Cimino gives us. Twenty minutes in we already get a church shot up during mass, two stolen cars, a shootout, sex and a false cry of rape. And that’s all before the ice cream. Irreverence is the overall theme here. With that, we’re not surprised to side with the leads. They look like they’re having fun. Nothing mean, nothing too serious. They are as polite as possible when swiping the couple’s car and have a laugh with a gassed-up loon transporting a pack of bunnies and a raccoon.
The entire picture is a filmmaker’s wet dream. The deep focus wide shots of lakes, mountains and wheat fields. The loud, pulsating sounds and then, the quiet. The scattershot serenity mirrors the ups and downs of these characters. The ice-cream cart jingle, the blasts of the cannon, the screeching cars, the bunnies, the rain. It’s a sensory free-fall in the best possible way. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is nearly flawless. It’s Cimino’s first and, in my opinion, best film.
I don’t need to tell you that Eastwood and Bridges are the tops. Eastwood has that way of saying thank you for waking my soul with his eyes and chin that’s a soothing calm to the hyper Lightfoot, played to the nines by Bridges. And Kennedy and Lewis aren’t far behind. They also rock. And I’ll spend a moment on Bach, who’s sexy and stunning before her boob and butt parade as Daisy Duke. I never took note of her acting in Dukes of Hazard. I’m sure it was fine like the rest of her. Here, in limited screen time, she’s all pretend coy and girlie jumpiness. They must have seen something in her, about her, on her. Or maybe they just had their eyes open. She’s something else.
Red is a total shit bag and Kennedy is great at playing shit bags. He isn’t a shit bag because he steals money. He’s a shit bag because he took credit for Thunderbolt’s war heroics. He’s a shit bag because he eyes up the bank manager’s naked daughter like a creep when they have a job to do. He’s a shit bag because he tosses his wounded partner out of a moving car, leaving him for dead. He’s a shit-bag because he double-crosses the others. He’s a shit-bag because he kicks the crap out of the much younger Lightfoot solely out of envy. He dismisses Lightfoot as “a kid, eating pistachio ice cream.” But Red gets his in the end and Cimino isn’t making any moral judgments based on faith. It’s Humanity 101. And we love the so-called good guys all the more for it.
Cimino doesn’t let the picture off easy. It could’ve been candy-wrapped with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot driving into the horizon. Instead, Cimino reminds us of that mortality beast. It’s unfair and unprovoked. This is a great ride until Lightfoot kicks it in the Cadillac. His demise has all the signs of a stroke. It’s not clear if it’s a result of Red’s blows to his head, or some undisclosed prior condition that allows Lightfoot to chuck all to the wind and bounce through the rest of his short life carefree. It’s incredibly sad and beautifully left open to interpretation by Cimino. The lasting feeling I take away is that Lightfoot is some guardian angel or interstellar soothsayer dropped into Thunderbolt’s life to square the odds. Lightfoot finds him, befriends him, helps him and will likely haunt him. Thunderbolt is the only one of the crew that gets away unscathed. But he has to carry Lightfoot’s death with him. Unfair and unprovoked. This is the snake that slithers underneath and embraced by the ’70s.
I don’t know what happened to Cimino. Most say that his colossal third film, Heaven’s Gate (1980), killed him. It cost a bunch and lost it all. I can’t say for sure because Year of the Dragon (1985) is pretty damn good. I don’t remember his re-make of Desperate Hours (1990) being awful and I haven’t seen The Sicilian (1987) or The Sunchaser (1996). But something definitely happened to him and it took a physical toll. Burning out before his time. Maybe he peaked too early. Too much success and adulation too soon. When your first two films are Thunderbolt and Lightfoot and The Deer Hunter (1978), and you get to direct Eastwood, Bridges, De Niro, Cazale, Walken and Streep, you realize that nobody does that. It’s almost impossible to follow. It doesn’t really explain the plastic surgery to the point where he looks like the monkey from Disney’s Aladdin. And apologies to Cimino and family if his current appearance is due to some illness or accident that I’m not aware of. But maybe the reported perfectionist on set and unrelenting worker in the editing room finally learned that perfection is unattainable. Maybe he turned to his face and body to make something different. Who knows? I’m just bummed that a talent like Cimino didn’t continue making fantastic pictures because I love this one so much.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot
Writer & Director: Michael Cimino
Producer: Robert Daley
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, Geoffrey Lewis and George Kennedy
Release Date: 1974