Release Date(s)1974 (September 26, 2023)
Studio(s)The Malpaso Company/United Artists (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
Clint Eastwood was one of the biggest global box office draws during the Seventies and the Eighties, but at the time, he never quite got enough credit for his willingness to explore different kinds of material. Even when he stayed within familiar genres, he freely pushed the envelope of his own persona; the likes of Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet and Wes Block in Tightrope couldn’t possibly have been farther removed from his signature character of “Dirty” Harry Calahan. Yet while he was frequently associated with cop movies and Westerns, he never let himself get limited by genre. From The Beguiled to Paint Your Wagon to Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man, he wasn’t quite as easy to pin down as some people thought that he was. While he never really looked back after making his auspicious directorial debut with Play Misty for Me, he was still willing to take a chance on working with other filmmakers, arguably never more so than when he gave the young writer/director Michael Cimino an opportunity to make his feature film debut with Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot doesn’t fit into any simple genre classifications at all—it’s a buddy film, a caper flick, a road movie, a warped slice of Americana, and much more. It even offers a signature bank heist at the end of an Oerlikon 20 mm cannon. Yet while it’s all of those things, it’s also none of those things, because Cimino marched to the beat of his own drum all throughout his career (for good or for ill), and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is no exception. He loaded the film with a variety of distinctive character actors to help give it a uniquely offbeat flavor: George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Bill McKinney, Burton Gilliam, Gary Busey, Vic Tayback, Jack Dodson, and more. McKinney looks like he drove in straight off the set of Deliverance (he’s credited simply as “Crazy Driver”), providing an unforgettable moment that has to be seen to be believed. Yet it’s Dub Taylor in a glorified cameo as a gas station attendant who seems to hammer home the real state of the American Dream in Cimino’s vision of the world. When Lightfoot asks him how business has been going, that sets the man off:
“In this business, you’re always one step away from bankruptcy. Funny money, credit, speculation... Somewhere in this country’s a little ol’ lady with $79.25. The five cents is a buffalo nickel. If she cashes in her investment, whole thing’ll collapse. General Motors, the Pentagon, the two-party system and the whole shebang. We’re all running downhill. Gotta’ keep running faster or we’ll fall down.”
In lesser hands, this rant might have been the central theme of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but for Cimino, it just provided some extra texture. The sequence doesn’t really have any deeper meaning than the baffling contents of the trunk in McKinney’s 1973 Plymouth Fury. Cimino’s real interest was the relationship between the aging Thunderbolt (Eastwood) and the younger Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges). Thunderbolt is a retired bank robber who’s been hiding out from members of his former gang, and he ends up revitalized after his chance encounter with the drifter Lightfoot. Exactly how Thunderbolt receives that injection of new life is what sets Thunderbolt and Lightfoot apart from the rest of the pack.
Much has been made of the gay subtext in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, but there’s a fine line between text and subtext, and that line can be blurred. In the case of films like A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, there’s no line whatsoever—subtext has become overt text. With Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the line may be there, but it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish given how openly Cimino treats the theme. Critic and editor Peter Biskind referred to it as “the barely submerged homosexual element in the male friendship formula,” and that’s much closer to the mark. Yet if it’s submerged at all, it’s still clearly visible beneath the surface.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot opens with the masculine version of a meet-cute between the title characters, and for the rest of the film, women are at best incidental to their growing relationship. That’s not necessarily unusual for a Seventies buddy movie, since women were frequently little more than passing objects for the men’s affections. The difference here is that there’s no real affection for women whatsoever. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does include some fleeting female frontal nudity, and it even offers future The Dukes of Hazzard pinup Catherine Bach in a bit part, but all of these women are still incidental to the nature of the masculine affection on display throughout the film. When men do turn their eyes toward the ladies, Cimino treats them scornfully (Biskind called it a “frank and undisguised contempt for heterosexuality.”)
Significantly, despite the female nudity and the presence of nominal eye candy like Bach, it’s not the women in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot who are objectified. Eastwood is photographed lovingly while he’s given ample opportunity to take off his shirt, but it’s really Bridges who is the sex object here, and not in a masculine sense of the term. He’s dressed far more flamboyantly than everyone else, and even ends up in drag during the fateful bank heist. (It’s not accidental that he winds up introducing some color into Eastwoods’s wardrobe.) When Lightfoot first appears, he’s wearing a tight pair of leather pants, with his arms swinging widely as he walks. He sits on the ground at one point with his legs spread open while Thunderbolt gazes at him from the side of the frame. If that wasn’t obvious enough, he’s also filmed from behind while holding a stick between his legs, once again with Thunderbolt framed to one side facing him. Just in case all of that was still too subtle, Lightfoot later basically deep throats an ice cream cone while Thunderbolt is watching. There’s text, then there’s subtext, and then there’s Jeff Bridges fellating ice cream.
All of this is deeply offensive to Thunderbolt’s old gang member Red Leary (Kennedy), and it culminates with Lightfoot taking a beating at Leary’s hands while still wearing drag. It’s a thinly veiled reference to the kinds of hate crimes that were prevalent at the time (and sadly still haven’t been completely eliminated today). Viewers of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot may or may not catch all of the inferences throughout the film, but they definitely didn’t escape Leary’s attention. Cimino’s own sympathies are made clear by the fact that Leary suffers the single most disturbing fate of any character in the entire film—the payback for his sins goes far beyond an eye for an eye.
Yet that beating still has its consequences, leading to the touching final scenes between Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, beautifully acted by Bridges. Ultimately, the affection between the two characters (however you choose to read it) is the single most affecting element of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Everything else—the car chases, the cannon, the rabbits, and even the ice cream cone—is extraneous to the heart and soul of their relationship, and that’s the heart and soul of the film. Eastwood wasn’t afraid to play this kind of part, and he also wasn’t afraid to take a chance on a newcomer like Cimino, so the world was gifted with one of the most memorable films of the Seventies in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
Cinematographer Frank Stanley shot Thunderbolt and Lightfoot on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with spherical lenses, framed at 2.39:1 for its theatrical release. This version uses a new master based on the previous 4K scan of the original camera negative, graded for High Dynamic Range in both Dolby Vision and HDR10. There’s no other information available regarding any restoration work that was performed, but the results speak for themselves. The image is immaculately clean, with no signs of age-related damage whatsoever. (There’s a hair at the bottom of the frame in a single shot, but it’s a moment where most viewers will be looking elsewhere.) There are some light elliptical blemishes that appear in a handful of shots, but those artifacts have always been present—they’re specks of some sort that appear horizontally stretched when the anamorphic image is unsqueezed. Detail is nicely resolved, the grain appears smooth, and the encode runs at a decent bitrate throughout.
The HDR grade offers colors that are rich without being oversaturated, although flesh tones and the color of the sky can vary a bit from shot to shot. The flesh tones look natural for most of the film, but they do veer a little ruddy at times. The sky sometimes changes from teal to deep blue in different shots during the same scenes. However, those inconsistencies appear to be inherent to the original cinematography. When comparing the UHD to the 2014 Blu-ray from Twilight Time (which used a different master), the variances are still present. The flesh tones are probably intentional, with Stanley giving them a more sunburnt look during some of the hottest daylight scenes. The sky is usually the bluest in shots with the camera at ground level looking up towards the clouds, so it’s likely the result of different filters that he used for those angles. In any event, this is a beautiful 4K presentation of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that captures all of its eccentricities intact.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono and 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. The 5.1 version isn’t a true remix, but instead just applies some processing to provide synthesized channel separation, as well as a bit of bass sweetening. The latter is evident in the score by Dee Barton and especially with the Paul Williams title song Where Do I Go from Here, but it’s not as noticeable elsewhere. The mono track still sounds more robust overall, even after being decoded to the center channel only, so it’s probably the best option between the two—although your own mileage may vary.
Kino Lorber’s 4K Ultra HD release of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a remastered 1080p copy of the film. The insert is reversible, featuring alternate theatrical poster artwork on each side, and there’s also a slipcover that uses a third piece of theatrical artwork. (Surely even the harshest of cover art critics will find something to appreciate here.) The following extras are included:
DISC ONE (UHD)
- Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton
DISC TWO (BD)
- Audio Commentary by Nick Pinkerton
- For the Love of Characters (HD – 28:42)
- Radio Spot (HD – :56)
- Trailer (HD – 2:10)
- The Eiger Sanction Trailer (HD – 2:50)
- Escape from Alcatraz Trailer (HD – 2:01)
- Winter Kills Trailer (SD – 3:20)
- Blown Away Trailer (SD – 1:35)
- 3 Days of the Condor Trailer (HD – 3:05)
- The Groundstar Conspiracy Trailer (HD – 2:37)
- Marathon Man Trailer (HD – 2:39)
The commentary featuring author and critic Nick Pinkerton was first included on Kino Lorber’s 2019 Blu-ray release of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Pinkerton definitely did his research before sitting down to record it, and he offers a wealth of minutiae regarding the film. That includes biographical information about nearly every actor, regardless of how small their parts may be, and he identifies the majority of the cars that appear onscreen (there’s no need to consult IMCDb when Pinkerton is on the job). He also provides information about the making of the film, as well as analyzing its themes and subtexts. In that regard, he reads from different sources like Peter Biskind’s 1974 essay about Thunderbolt and Lightfoot for Jump Cut magazine, the title of which I’ll leave for you do discover on your own. (Let’s just say that Biskind didn’t mince words.) Pinkerton is almost a bit too well prepared, as he can sound somewhat wooden at times, but this is still a fantastic resource for those who want to learn more about Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
For the Love of Characters was originally produced for the 2014 Region B Blu-ray from Carlotta Films in France. It’s an audio-only interview with Cimino, accompanied by a wide collection of stills as well as a few clips from Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. He explains how he had stepped in to finish the script for Magnum Force after original screenwriter John Milius walked away to direct Dillinger instead, and offers an overview of his own writing methodology. (He creates the characters first, and then follows them wherever they lead him.) He says that Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a story about the restoration of youth, with the aging Thunderbolt regaining his zest for life after meeting the younger Lightfoot. He talks about the daunting experience of directing Clint Eastwood, and how he told Jeff Bridges to do whatever was necessary to make Eastwood laugh. Cimino also talks about some of the other actors in the film (believe it or not, Bill McKinney’s character was based on a real person) and what shooting on location brought to his films. It’s not clear exactly when this interview was recorded, but it appears to have been shortly before Cimino’s passing in 2016.
The only thing of note that’s missing from any previous editions of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is the commentary track featuring Lem Dobbs, Julie Kirgo, and the late Nick Redman that was recorded for the 2014 Twilight Time Blu-ray release. Needless to say, that’s long out of print, although their group commentary was also included on a couple of different Region B Blu-rays from Capelight Pictures in Germany. Pinkerton’s commentary still offers plenty of value, and the addition of the interview with Cimino certainly doesn’t hurt. Of course, the biggest draw of all is this beautiful new 4K presentation of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, so Kino Lorber’s UHD is an essential purchase for fans of Clint Eastwood, Micheal Cimino, and offbeat Seventies filmmaking in general.
- Stephen Bjork