Having been a life-long car nut, a film school graduate, and a veteran of the Hollywood film industry for over twenty years, it’s pretty hard to find a car movie I haven’t seen. But when I recently considered some of the film review suggestions you have all submitted to me, I was surprised to spy a movie that had seemingly managed to slip past me all these years. And since it stars two of the most iconic actors of our times, and was an early effort by a seminal American filmmaker of the 1970s, it was a no-brainer that I should give a watch and an appraisal to Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), the subject of this month’s chapter of Rob’s Car Movie Review!
Produced by Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Company and released by United Artists, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot featured a heady cast, including Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Catherine Bach, Gary Busey, and Vic Tayback. Equally illustrious was the film’s freshman writer/director Michael Cimino, who would, five years later, go on to win the Academy Award for best director and producer of the iconic Vietnam War film, The Deer Hunter.
The plot of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot concerns a veteran bank robber, Thunderbolt (Eastwood), who along with a young, irreverent, wanna-be criminal, Lightfoot (Bridges), assembles his old gang of crooks back together to pull off a repeat of their greatest heist. Along the way, he must rein in the wild antics of Lightfoot, and manage old tensions that resurface amongst his partners.
The film features some knockout performances, especially that of Jeff Bridges, who would garner a best supporting actor nomination at the 1975 Academy Awards for his efforts. Clint turns in yet another of his iconic, steely, tough-guy performances, and George Kennedy charges the movie with a characterization that is half simmering and half manic.
Although at times the film’s dialogue can come off dated – owing to its frequent use of contemporary hippy slang – the script nonetheless powers the movie along and keeps the viewer involved at all times. Of particular note is the heist sequence, which is charged with suspense and action throughout. Part road movie, part buddy flick and part heist film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is deftly managed into a coalesced narrative thanks in no small part to the prodigious talent of Cimino. Though the movie is small in scope and story, one can clearly see that Cimino was already ready to tackle his future sprawling epics such as the aforementioned Deer Hunter, Year of the Dragon, The Sicilian, and Heaven’s Gate.
It is also evident that Michael Cimino had a nascent love for automobiles, as there are a host of killer muscle and classic cars present throughout the flick.
The movie begins with a scene where Lightfoot steals an absolutely transcendent white 1973 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am featuring an L75 455ci V8, red hood scoop, honeycomb wheels and egg crate grille from a used car lot. A tidbit of trivia for you all is that the car was owed and beloved by Clint Eastwood, who suggested to Cimino that it appear in the film.
Shortly after teaming up in the film, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot carjack an Autumn Gold and green 1973 Buick Riviera 455ci from a middle aged couple at a gas station. The Riviera in the film is resplendent with its classic boat-tail styling featuring the two-piece, vee-butted fastback rear glass, which was inspired by the iconic 1963 Corvette Sting Ray split-window coupe.
Also featured heavily in the film is a primer-gray 1951 Mercury coupe, which sadly gets driven through a plate glass department store window in the film’s climax; and an absurd, jacked-up 1973 Plymouth Fury III riding on extra long leaf spring shackles, and fat drag radials in back.
Appearing at the very end of the film is a white on lipstick 1973 Cadillac Eldorado convertible, which Thunderbolt buys as a tribute to Lightfoot, who mentioned that he would “buy one outright with cash one day” should he ever have the means.
Thanks to the amazing creative talents involved, the intelligent script and a litany of cool cars, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot shines brighter than your average car movie. It reminded me at times of one of my favorite car films, Two-Lane Blacktop, which I reviewed last year, owing to its look and method of storytelling. I give Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seven out of ten pistons and recommend that you catch a viewing of it soon.
About The Author: Rob Finkelman is a freelance writer for Street Muscle Magazine. He attended and graduated from New York University’s film school in 1992, and subsequently worked in the movie business for twenty years as a documentarian and screenwriter. Combining his two great passions in life – films and cars – and writing about them is a dream job for him. He will be bringing us a Car Movie Review each month, and he’s open to suggestions so list yours below.