Michael Cimino: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot – A Look Back

Geoffrey Lewis, Eastwood, George Kennedy, Jeff Bridges

The announcement of Michael Cimino’s death today at age 77 was a shock and it allowed for amount of reflection at the career that began so well and ended so badly. So it seems fitting to look back at the film that started it all for Michael Cimino; Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974).

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot could be called a “Drive In” film. It was at a drive in that I saw it, aged 17, nearly two years after the film’s release.  Despite UA and their poor marketing of the film, and the fact that Bridges effectively stole the film from Eastwood, I fell in love with the story and the ending was the first one to ever make me cry.

Not so much a crime/comedy film, TaL was a buddy movie. A May-December bromance between Eastwood’s laconic former thief and the young conman played by Bridges. Thunderbolt was a man who turned his back on crime and Lightfoot was a young man in love with it.

The two meet up when  former colleagues of Thunderbolt turn up to extract their pound of flesh from their partner who they believe cheated them out of money from a big heist.

George Kennedy was the asthmatic bad man with anger management issues and poor self image; Red Leary.Geoffrey Lewis was Eddie Goody and as his name implies Eddie was the nicer of the two men.

The film was one of Eastwood’s least favorites according to author Marc Elliot in his 2010 biographical tome on the entertainer.  It is maintained that Clint felt, quite rightly, that UA let the side down in terms of marketing and that Bridges stole the film.  It does not mention that both Lewis and specifically Kennedy overshadowed the underplaying Eastwood.

As mentioned by other critics the film looked at the male dynamic, as a group, and focussed on the camaraderie of men in general.  But Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is also a combination coming of age film and a romance (bromance). It is also a blackly comic tragedy where the optimistic partnership goes pear shaped at the end.

Ironically it was Eastwood who insisted that Cimino direct his script. Clint initially wanted to helm the picture but decided to let Michael take the lead. While not overly successful, the film did finish number 18 on the list of top grossing films of 1974.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot garnered one Oscar nomination for Bridges and went on to become a cult favorite. Cimino then went on to write and direct the 1978  Oscar winning film The Deer Hunter.  The Vietnam themed feature  took in five of the little golden men.

(Christopher Walken took home the Best Supporting Actor gong for his portrayal of the doomed Nick.)

Then came Heaven’s Gate. The film that killed UA (United Artists) and stopped Cimino’s rise as the new wunderkind in town.  The “auteur” overspent on the production by millions and according to Steven Bach in Final Cut it was a fiasco of epic proportions. I have read the book and Bach clearly  believes that  in terms of disastrous filmmaking Heaven’s Gate was the perfect storm.

The film flopped and Cimino was essentially finished. He directed four more feature length films and one short film segment in 2007. The writer and director’s career died way before he did.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot feels like drive in fare. It  was a “B” movie out of the gate. Regardless of the requisite nudity and boob shots however the film managed to impress. It is evocative of all those ’70s crime movies yet different because it was all about the Bridges and Eastwood characters bonding and falling in love and becoming a team. The two were spiritual brothers by the end of the film and it was brilliant.

Watching the film at the 62 Drive In outside Fayetteville, Arkansas, I fell in love with Bridges as a performer and was enthralled by his “brain damaged” performance. Kennedy proved that he could still be a nasty bit of work as a bad man and Lewis was brilliant. The film also featured Gary Busey, a childhood favorite from when he was Gailard Sartain’s right hand man on the Dr. Mazeppa Pompazoidi creature feature show from Tulsa, Oklahoma. It also had a young Catherine Bach who would later become Daisy Duke on television.

More than anything else, the film showed that Cimino had that touch. The ability to tell a story that sang, even if it was about a bunch of thieves who had no honor amongst themselves.  It was a great start that peaked with The Deer Hunter and expired with Heaven’s Gate.

Ironically Heaven’s Gate is now considered almost a classic.

Rest In Peace Michael Cimino. An auteur whose career never reached the meteoric heights it could have all because of a western that killed a studio.

Michael Cimino

George Kennedy Gone at 91: They Don’t Make em Like That Anymore

George Kennedy’s death at 91 means that another one of those iconic legends that I and millions of others grew up watching on television (Saturday Night at the Movies) and later on the big screen is gone.

Still from the film The Dirty Dozen

George Kennedy’s death at 91 means that another one of those iconic legends that I and millions of others grew up watching on television (Saturday Night at the Movies) and later on the big screen is gone.  While it is a trite phrase, often overused, suffice to say that in Kennedy’s case, they really do not make em like that anymore.

The last film George Harris Kennedy worked on was the abysmal Mark Wahlberg remake of The Gambler. Watching the film’s screener for review I was shocked to see how old the Cool Hand Luke actor appeared. In my mind he was ageless.

The first time I ever saw Kennedy on screen was in the film The Sons of Katie Elder. He played the surly gunsel hired to “take care” of John Elder (Duke Wayne) and the huge man first meets Duke’s character as he plunges the town’s undertaker’s head repeatedly into a barrel of water. Curly’s high-pitched “piggy” giggle as he almost drowns the man is interrupted with John Elder’s shouted, “Hey” and an pickaxe handle in the face.

This scene was iconic enough that is has been repeated in other films, even Gremlins has  Zach Galligan’s character re-enact the scene but with a  sword.

The Sons of Katie Elder moment was not an isolated incident. Kennedy played characters whose actions stood out in films, whether they were award winning movies like Cool Hand Luke, or more pedestrian fare like Clint Eastwood’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (where Kennedy’s character rather nastily beats a young Lightfoot (Lloyd Bridges) so badly that the boy dies a lingering death), Kennedy was one of those actors who stood out.

George Kennedy could play comedy, as proven in his turns in the Naked Gun franchise as well as menacing bad men. He was equally at home as bluff good guys, snotty bad guys or  the “last” slave to shout “I am Spartacus,” in the 1960 film, Kennedy brought a truth and believability to all his roles.

The New York born son of a ballet dancer and musician/orchestra leader was equally home in any genre playing any role.  Regardless of the budget or the part, the Oscar winning actor made you believe him.

The cigar chomping airport savior, Patroni,  who clears off the snow in the 1970 film Airport where he shared screen credits with Dean Martin but not screen time.  He worked with Dino before  in Bandolero! as the lovesick sheriff July Johnson who chases Martin through Mexico.

Throughout a career that began in 1956 (The Phil Silvers Show) and ended with the 2014 film The Gambler the actor played cops, soldiers, murderers, heroes, convicts, and all manner of roles across the board.  Watching Kennedy accept his Oscar for Cool Hand Luke, one can see the innate gentleness on his face and in his voice, a trait that caused people to all him the nicest man in Hollywood.

Watching any of Kennedy’s performances is a lesson is acting and reacting. The actor could  convey a myriad of emotions with his eyes and face alone, dialogue was not required for this character actor to convince the viewer of his character’s veracity.

I was actually surprised into tears at the news of Kennedy’s passing. He was a firm favorite, and not just from the many westerns watched all those years ago on Saturday night television,  one who could always be counted upon to stand out and make his performance memorable, regardless of the film’s budget.

George Kennedy (1925 – 2016) a huge man whose six-foot four-inch frame was dwarfed by his ability to make us believe completely in his characters actions on screen big and small. They really do not “make em like that” anymore.

The Gambler: Mark Wahlberg Leaves Audience Dumbfounded and Depressed

The Gambler: Mark Wahlberg Leaves Audience Dumbfounded and Depressed

Mark Wahlberg is Jim Bennett in this remake of the 1974 James Caan film The Gambler and as directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Rise of the Planet of the Apes) this version leaves the audience dumbfounded, depressed and not a little confused. Like the original film, Wahlberg’s gambler is a academic figure, a professor who teaches literature at an unidentified Los Angeles college. Jim Bennett is a published author who has given up writing to teach it, or rather to discourage others from participating as writers.