Starring: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy
Director: Michael Cimino
This free-flowing, character-driven crime drama cum buddy movie was Michael Cimino’s first film as director after penning scripts for Silent Running and Magnum Force. It’s a remarkably fresh and inventive piece of work from a filmmaker who would make bigger movies but not necessarily better ones. Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges), a slick young confidence trickster, has a chance meeting with a burnt out ex-safe-blower nicknamed the Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood), who is laying low after falling out with his erstwhile partners. The two strike up a friendship, but it’s soon tested when a pair of Thunderbolt’s old buddies come looking for him, certain he knows the location of a missing half a million dollars.
A truce is agreed and they all embark on a leisurely heist caper, the quartet forming a dysfunctional family, with tension regularly flaring up between the cocky and irreverent Lightfoot and the curmudgeonly Red Leary (George Kennedy). The comedic interplay and bursts of action are brilliantly controlled by Cimino, while the whole thing is opened up and given huge scope and gravitas by the location shooting in Montana – Big Sky country of a kind more usually seen in Westerns.
Eastwood teases audience expectations by playing a weary old lag held together by pins and braces, while Bridges succeeds, as perhaps no other actor could, in making his character seem genuinely sweet-natured and likeable as well as charmingly full of beans. But the most interesting part goes to Kennedy, best remembered today for humorous, avuncular roles in the likes of The Naked Gun and The Eiger Sanction. His Red Leary is the type of gruff, larger than life ogre who usually turns out to have a heart of gold in Hollywood movies, but not in this case. Cimino explodes the reassuring stereotype and reveals him to be a truly hateful bully. The familial dysfunction in their gang masks genuine, homicidal antipathy.
As well as these dark undercurrents, the movie also has a strange subtext to do with the ideological gap between the baby-boomer generation and the one that served in the Korean war (Thunderbolt and Red Leary are both vets.) Befriending him and dressing him up in some trendy fashion samples that he has stolen, Lightfoot shows Thunderbolt how the youth of America live (he’s also Thunderbolt’s guide in a literal sense – he always seems to know where they are and the way to go, while Thunderbolt always seems lost). By contrast, Red Leary in his black suit and dusty, ’50s-model car represents an older, meaner, more repressive America that would love to strangle this new, more liberal one in its cradle.
All that, plus Clint Eastwood disguised as a preacher, giving a sermon from a pulpit, and Jeff Bridges in drag. What a movie. It’s Cimino at his most playful and accessible, having fun with genre conventions but without the whiff of strain and pretension that tainted his later projects. No extras, but the Blu-ray comes with a gorgeous HD transfer packed with detail and sparkling colours that captures the full swagger of Frank Stanley’s widescreen cinematography: the scene where they’re sitting on the riverbank waiting for a ferry boat (Diversion Lake, Montana standing in for Hells Canyon, Oregon) is particularly ravishing. A genuine ’70s classic, looking better than ever.