THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT (1974) revisited

September 10, 2016

thunderbolt Greetings again from the darkness. The 1970’s brought a wave of new filmmakers who not only changed the way films were made, but also the type and style of stories for the big screen. Due to the abundance of interesting movies from this era, it’s easy to see how, over time, a few gems can slip and fall into the ‘forgotten’ category. One of these is this personal favorite from the infamous writer/director Michael Cimino, who passed away just a couple of months ago (July 2016).

The opening shot has a car in the distance kicking up dust on a country road as it approaches a small rural church seemingly plopped in the middle of pasture. Once parked, the driver of the car steps inside the church and begins spraying bullets throughout the intimate wooden structure – his target being a bespectacled slow talking preacher played by Clint Eastwood who ducks out a side door.

As you might guess, John Doherty, nicknamed The Thunderbolt, (Eastwood’s character) is no real preacher. The man shooting at him is one of his old partners in crime, and he’s seeking revenge on Doherty for stealing the gang’s money from their last job. While Eastwood is dodging bullets in the pasture, a young wise-cracking Jeff Bridges is stealing a car from a local dealership. In short order Bridges (Lightfoot) has run over the guy shooting at Eastwood, and Clint is hanging onto the car for dear life as Bridges speeds off. And that’s how this inauspicious titular partnership begins.

What follows is a blend of buddy flick, road trip and heist movie. It’s spiced up with Thunderbolt’s other partners (played by George Kennedy and Geoffrey Lewis) first chasing them down, and then reluctantly agreeing to partner up again to repeat their previous robbery. In the process, we travel through Hell’s Canyon along the Snake River in Idaho and listen to a lot of tough talk between the four key players. Kennedy’s character is especially hard on the young Bridges, and that’s what kicks off the pseudo father-son relationship at the core of the film – tough guy and loner Thunderbolt genuinely grows to like the fast-talking Lightfoot, who manages to quell a bit of Thunderbolt’s world weary bitterness.

The dialogue is filled with put-downs, smack-downs and threats, and is accompanied by some unusual visuals. In addition to the stunning countryside, seeing Kennedy and Lewis co-occupy a small ice cream truck is itself entirely worth the effort of tracking this one down. But that’s not all … how about Jeff Bridges in full dress, wig, heels and make-up? It’s all for his part in the heist, but it certainly nails down the closeness of he and Eastwood and they hide as a couple at a drive-in movie theatre … that is, until they are forced into a high-speed chase scene over the familiar speed humps that anyone from the drive-in era will recall. We also get the colorful wardrobe – Eastwood and Bridges spend much of the film in disco-type clothes stolen from the back of a car. Other standout visual moments include a woman on a motorcycle using a hammer to pound on Bridges’ van while both are driving over a bridge; comedian Don Rickles on TV; and a woman exposing herself to Bridges through a sliding glass door as he works his manual labor job.

These fabulous moments all fit perfectly into 1970’s cinema and are courtesy of the terrific cast, as well as the vision of writer/director Michael Cimino in his first feature film. Cimino’s story is the ultimate fall-from-grace. As a Yale graduate, he became a Madison Avenue advertising star with his unique and creative TV commercials. His script polishing of Magnum Force (the second Dirty Harry movie) so impressed Eastwood, that it led to the two collaborating on Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. With the success of this first film, Cimino moved on to the Vietnam picture The Deer Hunter, released in 1978. That film won 4 Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director (for Cimino). This propelled him to the top of the Hollywood mountain, and the rare opportunity for full control of his next project. The result was the legendary critical and box office flop Heaven’s Gate. It’s the flop by which all others are measured, and very nearly destroyed United Artists (a studio founded in 1919 by Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith). Cimino’s reputation and career never fully recovered and though he only made five more films, he did write two successful novels. Upon hearing of his passing, many of those he worked with had nothing but praise for Cimino as a writer, director and artist … especially Eastwood and Robert DeNiro.

Even casual movie watchers are somewhat familiar with the long (more than 60 years) and decorated career of Clint Eastwood. His impact on the entertainment world has come via acting, writing, directing, producing and composing. He has won four Oscars (two each for Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven), while being nominated eleven times. His last acting role was Trouble with the Curve (2012), but he continues to direct films … including the recently released Sully, with Tom Hanks playing Captain Chesley Sullenberger who piloted the “miracle on the Hudson”. Eastwood’s big break came with the TV show “Rawhide”, which led to the spaghetti westerns of the 1960’s, and then to the 1970’s-80’s tough guy and action star Dirty Harry, before mixing in action/comedy with Every Which Way But Loose (1978) and the like. Although he continued to act, it seemed Eastwood’s passion lay behind the camera, where he has been able to make the films he wanted and include some of his personal views (not always popular with the Hollywood elite). Given the two high profile lawsuits, he probably wishes he had never met Sondra Locke, but Eastwood’s influence and legacy stretches across decades and multiple genres in the movie world.

In 1974, Jeff Bridges was still known mostly as the son of Lloyd Bridges, though he had also made a name for himself with a Best Supporting Oscar nomination for The Last Picture Show (McMurtry, Bogdanovich, 1971). As Lightfoot, Bridges dons leather pants and a brash attitude while flaunting his acting style of just making everything look so darn easy … and receiving another Best Supporting Oscar nomination. Since then, Bridges has received Oscar nominations for Starman (1984), The Contender (2001), True Grit (2010) and of course for his Oscar winning performance in Crazy Heart (2009). Beyond these, Bridges has brought life to some incredibly unique and interesting characters: Kevin Flynn/Clu in Tron (1982), former NFL’er Terry Brogan in Against All Odds (1984), Preston Tucker in the underrated Tucker: The Man and his Dream (1988), with brother Beau in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989), another lost gem The Fischer King (1991), the “highly” popular Dude in The Big Lebowski (1998), the suspicious neighbor in Arlington Road (1999), Tony Stark’s nemesis Obadiah Stone in Iron Man (2008), and most recently as the retiring Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water … one of the best films of 2016. And yes, he did appear in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate.

george-kennedy In addition to Eastwood and Bridges, another key to why the film works is the presence of George Kennedy as Red, the grumpy, burly, hayfever-stricken guy who trusts no one. Prior to acting, Kennedy served under General George S Patton and was awarded 2 bronze stars. Like Eastwood, he broke in during the era of Westerns and moved on to tough guy roles in the 1960’s. The difference, of course, was that Eastwood was one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, while Kennedy was simply one of the best character actors in Hollywood history. He won a Best Supporting Oscar for his memorable work opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke (1967). In the 1970’s Kennedy appeared in the popular disaster films (the “Airport” franchise, Earthquake, etc), before turning his career on its ear by jumping into the Naked Gun spoof films. Never one to shy away from work, whether TV or movies, Kennedy appeared in 74 episodes (1988-91) of the immensely popular TV series “Dallas”. His role of Carter McKay breathed new life into the series. As a rancher/oilman from Colorado who bought a ranch from viewer favorite Ray Krebbs, Kennedy’s McKay became the ultimate nemesis for J.R. Ewing. Watching Kennedy and Larry Hagman go head-to-head was some of the best TV viewers could ask for. In fact it was Kennedy’s character who tricked J.R. into losing control of Ewing Oil. Kennedy also appeared in the two CBS “Dallas” movies that followed the end of the series. His final role was that of Mark Wahlberg’s grandfather in The Gambler (2014). Mr. Kennedy died in February 2016 at the age of 91, after more than 50 years of acting and nearly 200 screen credits. Fans of his work may remember his often gruff persona, but those who worked with him claim Kennedy was just about the nicest guy they had known.

The fourth cog in this Thunderbolt and Lightfoot wheel was Eddie played by familiar face Geoffrey Lewis. In the film, he was the good-hearted guy who seemed to be out of place, which allowed for the perfect contrast with hard-nosed George Kennedy. Mr. Lewis appeared in many movies with Clint Eastwood, and TV audiences may remember his as part of the series “Flo” (1980). Lewis, who is the father of actress Juliette Lewis, died in 2015 after more than 200 acting roles … including Heaven’s Gate.

The rest of Cimino’s first film is literally filled with one scene appearances by faces we either recognized at the time, or would come to know very well in the near future. These include: a 20 year old Catherine Bach, known also as Daisy Duke in “The Dukes of Hazzard”; Gary Busey in a quick scene with Bridges; Burton Gilliam of Blazing Saddles fames; Dub Taylor (appeared in multiple films by both Sam Peckinpah and Robert Zemekis) is the gas station attendant who rants about US economics; Bill McKinney (much too memorable in Deliverance, numerous films with Eastwood) is the crazy driver who, along with his pooping raccoon, picks up a hitchhiking Eastwood and Bridges; Claudia Lennear (the inspiration for The Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, part of Twenty Feet from Stardom) is the secretary who asks Eastwood for his social security number; Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague on “The Andy Griffith Show”) plays the vault manager and home invasion victim; Roy Jenson (in Chinatown, he’s the guy holding Nicholson when Polanski slices his nose) is Dunlop, the early church shooter; Gregory Walcott (Plan 9 From Outer Space) is the car salesman who Bridges dupes; Scott Eastwood (Clint’s kid) is the 5 year old boy at the ice cream truck; and Vic Tayback and Beth Howland, known for their work as Mel and Vera on “Alice”. Should you need more, that’s Paul Williams singing the theme song (that he wrote).

Admittedly, Michael Cimino’s directorial debut Thunderbolt and Lightfoot does not rank among the best of the truly great films released during the 1970’s: The Godfather I and II, Jaws, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Star Wars … just to name a few. However, it does belong on a list of forgotten gems – movies from the 1970’s that are still worth watching today. Where else can you watch Clint Eastwood preaching the gospel or George Kennedy bullying Jeff Bridges?

***This is part of theDarlin’ Dallas Blogathanrunning September 21-23, 2016 at https://weegiemidget.wordpress.com/

darlin-dallasers

 

 

 

 

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THE GAMBLER (2014)

December 18, 2014

 

 

gambler Greetings again from the darkness. “I’m all in!” That’s a gambling phrase of which even the most risk-averse amongst us recognizes. When Blackjack addict Jim Bennett (played by Mark Wahlberg) goes all in, which he does every time, it’s more proof that he is “the kind of guy that likes to lose” … a description offered by one of the mobsters and loan sharks who lend him money.

Director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011) and screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) deliver a remake of the very cool 1974 film of the same title starring James Caan and written by James Toback. Wahlberg is spot on as the self-destructive gambler who, rather than live for the thrill of winning, seems intent on pushing the envelope of misery and turmoil. His character manages to go seriously in debt to the Koreans who run the underground gambling establishments, as well as ruthless gangster Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire”), and a philosophical mobster (a bald John Goodman) doing his best Jabba the Hut impersonation.  These are three guys most of us would avoid at all costs.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more challenging to accept Wahlberg as the rebellious writing prodigy with a privileged background, who articulates in a motor-mouthed rapid-fire onslaught of derisive observations meant to prove how he so despises mediocrity. It’s obvious Wahlberg is “all in” for this role, but it’s difficult not to compare to the more nuanced performance of Caan forty years ago.

Brie Larson (so great in Short Term 12) plays the bright student in Wahlberg’s class, but her role is so limited we are left to only imagine the heights of her talent. Anthony Kelley plays Lamar, a college basketball player ripe for Wahlberg’s world, and Andre Braugher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene as the college dean. Richard Schiff offers up some comic relief as a pawn broker making Wahlberg’s misery just a tad worse. The great George Kennedy plays Wahlberg’s dying grandfather in the film’s opening scene, and he is the first to provide warning on the mess his grandson has created.

Jessica Lange does a wonderful job as Wahlberg’s estranged mother who is filled with both scorn and sadness at the state of her son, and offers up one last bag of cash in an attempt to allow him to begin anew. The support work is strong across the board, but it’s Goodman who stands out, both with dialogue and a physical presence that deserves some type of award for personal courage and lack of inhibition. His monologue on “F.U. money” is worth the price of admission, though you may request a refund after seeing him shirtless in the sauna.

There is a distinctive style to the film, though at times it comes across as a Scorcese wannabe. From a soundtrack perspective, the diversity of music ranges from classical to folk to big band, with some of the lyrics acting as commentary on the story. The film is pretty entertaining as you watch, but leaves an emptiness once it’s over. With so much that works, it’s a shame it all disappears so quickly … just like money on a Blackjack table.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you need a lesson on “F.U. Money” OR you need proof that a shirtless movie star is not always a pleasant thing

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are seeking gambling tips OR your ears burn when exposed to profanity

watch the trailer:

 


COOL HAND LUKE (1967) revisited

June 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Entirely too many years have passed since I last saw this movie, so when Cinemark included it in the summer classic film series, I was in my seat nice and early. Mention this movie and the first thing people do is quote one of the most famous lines in movie history: “What we’ve got here – is failure to communicate.” No question that’s a great line. But there is so much more to this movie and it holds up beautifully 45 years after release.

Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, who spent two years on a chain-gang, this is the story of Luke (Paul Newman) who just can’t bring himself to conform to the rules, regardless whether those be the rules of the military, society, prison, or self-imposed by his fellow convicts. We are introduced to Luke as he drunkenly cuts off the top of parking meters on main street of a small town. Later, in a throw away line, we learn he was gaining revenge on someone. It’s the clear indication that while he doesn’t always want to fit in, Luke clearly knows right from wrong.

 There are so many terrific scenes in this film, that it’s not possible to discuss each. Every scene with the prison warden, played by Strother Martin, is intense. Each of the Boss guards are frightening, especially Morgan Woodward as the sharpshooter behind the mirrored shades. There are numerous impactful scenes featuring the group of convicts. Even though we learn little about the individuals, we realize the fragile male psyche is on full display. Despite the power of all of these characters and scenes, the real strength of the film is the relationship between Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy). Watching the early cat and mouse game, and the subsequent transfer of power, we realize this is two amazing actors at the top of their game.

 George Kennedy rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor award and continued on to become one of the most successful and prolific character actors of the 70’s and 80’s, and his career culminated with his iconic role in the Naked Gun series. As for Paul Newman, this is one of his best performance in a long line of standout performances. This one is in the middle stage of his career and he exuded manliness with a touch of sensitivity. He and Strother Martin would meet again in one of the best sequences of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

 Watching Luke win over all the convicts, including the previous leader played by Kennedy is stunning, yet gut-wrenching when offset by the scenes with the guards who are hell bent on getting Luke to understand his place. They understand the risk he poses to the systematic rhythms of the prison.  What no one seems to understand is Luke’s odd need for misery … he allows himself only moments of joy before lapsing back into some odd form of sacrifice. Study the famous egg scene.  50 eggs. 50 inmates.  The pain he endures and the scene ends with a crucifix pose. Now take that to the final few scenes that take place in the church. Luke is asking the questions, but he refuses to hear the answer.

 The supporting cast is downright incredible. This was the feature film debut for: Ralph Waite (4 years later he became the beloved paternal figure of TV’s “The Waltons”); Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser from Walking Tall); James Gammon (later the crusty manager in Major League); and Anthony Zerbe, another iconic character actor of the 70’s and 80’s. Also featured are Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton (singing a few songs), Wayne Rogers (from “MASH”), Richard Davalos (James Dean’s brother Aron in East of Eden), and Rance Howard (Ron’s dad as the sheriff). In a brief, but truly great scene, Jo Van Fleet (also from East of Eden), appears as Arletta, and we quickly understand Luke’s background and inability to find himself.

Often overlooked by film historians, “Lucille” putting on a show for the convicts as she washes her car, is a scene that is meant for more than titillation. As she creatively buffs the windows, the reaction of the convicts reminds us that these are still men and no amount of humiliation and degradation can change that. One of my friends (Big E) argues that Joy Harmon was clearly cheated out of an Oscar for this scene.

The score is the handy work of Lalo Schifrin and expertly captures the moment … especially in the black tar scene. Director Stuart Rosenberg (working here with the great Conrad Hall) was known only for his TV work when he got this script. He went on to direct another prison movie in 1980 called Brubaker. Starring Newman’s Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford, the film was a decent prison drama, but not at the level of Cool Hand Luke … which by the way, was installed into the National Film Registry in 2005.