Combustible Celluloid
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With: George Bancroft, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen, Tully Marshall, Eugenie Besserer, James Spottswood, Robert Elliott, Fred Kohler, E.H. Calvert, George Irving, Mike Donlin, S.S. Stewart, William L. Thorne
Written by: Charles Furthman, Jules Furthman, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Josef von Sternberg
Directed by: Josef von Sternberg
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 91
Date: 06/20/1929

Thunderbolt (1929)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Mug Slots

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This early talkie by director Josef von Sternberg shows the director slowly moving toward the lush, intricately designed frames that would populate his best films, i.e. his seven films with Marlene Dietrich that began the following year. But Thunderbolt still suffers from a peculiar slowness, possibly related to the young and creaky sound process of the time. Star George Bancroft (Underworld, The Docks of New York) talks so... slowly... at times that it's uncomfortable (he still received an Oscar nomination for his work). He plays the title character, a mountain-sized thug with a lethal right hook. Trouble begins when Thunderbolt's best girl, Ritzie (Fay Wray), leaves him for a seemingly ordinary guy, a banker, Bob Moran (Richard Arlen). Thunderbolt is eventually arrested and goes to jail with a death sentence hanging over his head. But Bob is framed and ends up in jail, too, right across the way from Thunderbolt... perhaps an elaborate trap so that Thunderbolt can exact his revenge in person.

Four legendary writers — two sets of brothers — worked on the screenplay (Charles and Jules Furthman and Joseph L. and Herman J. Mankiewicz), all to come up with something rather ordinary, but still compelling. Sternberg uses sound to magnificent effect here, from the realistic noises of a noisy nightclub (a mostly Black nightclub, at that), to the eerie barbershop quartet songs that echo through the prison, heard but never seen, and even a squeaky dog toy. He also uses the shadows of the bars to decorate the frames with a kind of stark quality that enhances the picture. Weird performances like Tully Marshall's the nervy warden feel out of place, but Thunderbolt's faithful dog — who comes to stay with him in prison — is a show-stealer. Kino Lorber's 2021 Blu-ray features a decent transfer, with a few expected scratches and flaws befitting a nearly 100-year-old film. Nick Pinkerton provides an informative commentary track, and there are a handful of bonus trailers. (The box lists the running time as 85 minutes, but it's actually 91.)

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