Thunderbolt (1929)

George Bancroft, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen, Tully Marshall,
A criminal known as Thunderbolt is imprisoned and facing execution. Into the next cell is placed Bob Moran, an innocent man who has been framed and who is in love with Thunderbolt's girl. Thunderbolt hopes to stave off the execution
  • 6.5 /10.0 IMDB Rating:
  • DatePublished:
  • 2018-09-07 Added:
  • Charles Furthman, Jules Furthman, Herman J. Mankiewicz, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Writer:
  • Josef von Sternberg, Director:
  • B.P. Fineman, Producer:
8 / 10

A different kind of gangster film...

... at least for early sound. The title character in particular, Thunderbolt, played by George Bancroft, is a rather complex gangster character for a dawn of sound movie. What do you say about a man who'd go to great lengths to kill a fellow he has never met just on general principle but who loves the stray dog that causes him to finally get pinched and put in the death house to the point that when the death house warden grants him a favor, Thunderbolt asks for that same dog to stay in his cell as a pet? Fay Wray, only 21 at the time, plays Ritzy, Thunderbolt's girl, with a sense of world-weariness that is wise beyond her years. When the film opens she's being hassled by the police to give up Thunderbolt's hiding place in some really classic early sound police interrogation scenes. Ironically, she really wants to be free of Thunderbolt, who swears he'll never let her go, especially if there's another guy involved, and there is - bank teller Bob Morgan played by Richard Arlen.

The first third of the film moves about quite a bit with some great jazz age settings, but the last two-thirds is primarily confined to the death house where Thunderbolt awaits his appointment with the chair. There's lots of atmosphere in this one with the death row quartet that keeps getting broken up as one fellow is executed and then restarted as another inmate enters. The death row warden is an interesting fellow, with eccentricity and nervousness balanced by a humane streak to the point that he seems misplaced - he seems like he'd be happier managing the shoe department in some retail store.

The end has a surprise twist to it that makes Thunderbolt rethink his rather complex plan of revenge just as he makes that last walk to the chair. I'm being intentionally vague here so I don't ruin it for you. Watch it for the surprising sophistication of this early sound piece, for the kind of atmosphere you can always count on in a von Sternberg film, and for that general touch of class that you find in the early Paramount talkies.

7 / 10

THUNDERBOLT (Josef von Sternberg, 1929) ***

Sternberg's first Talkie is virtually a retread of his UNDERWORLD (1927), with the same leading man – George Bancroft – no less. However, while ably flanked by his co-stars there, he is practically the whole show this time around (Fay Wray and Richard Arlen being no match for Evelyn Brent and Clive Brook) and, consequently, the role earned Bancroft his sole Oscar nomination (and the film's as well)! Anyway, the director's approach to Sound was not as experimental as may have been anticipated (resorting to Death Row histrionics and even a number of songs to showcase the format!) and the end result is hardly dazzling in this regard – though the dialogue is surprisingly clean, i.e. audible, for such an early example. Conversely, the visual aspect of the film, usually the director's main concern, is greatly diluted here through the poor quality of the copy I watched which also sported forced German subtitles!

Bancroft is once again a gangster (as before, his activity remains undisclosed throughout, apart from lording it up in an almost exclusively-black nightclub!) and his moll eventually leaves him for another, younger and handsomer, man. Here, too, the mobster is caught and imprisoned – in a wonderful scene where he shows compassion for a mutt, subsequently proving inseparable, thus preceding Raoul Walsh's HIGH SIERRA by 12 years! Yet, he ingeniously has his associates frame the rival for a murder they committed (the development of this particular plot strand is unfortunately rather muddled) and the hero winds up in the cell opposite Bancroft's. As in UNDERWORLD, Fred Kohler also appears here to antagonize the latter – besides lanky warden Tully Marshall and an Irish guard whose name the protagonist continually tries to guess (with the droll pay-off coming at the film's very conclusion).

Wray and her mother plead with the gangster to do the right thing and clear Arlen of his crime but, of course, he will have none of that at the start. Again, however, Bancroft is softened and confesses his role in the young man's entrapment just hours before his execution is due; I have to wonder here why he, a first-time felon, is scheduled to die before the much sought-after "Thunderbolt"! – yes, the film's title is a reference to the character's nick-name. In any case, the moll's own admission that she had left her lover for the gangster rather than the other way around makes the latter realize, as was the case in UNDERWORLD, that he is in the way and gladly accepts his fate. Incidentally, speaking of references to the director's earlier work, Wray and Arlen are made to undergo a hasty marriage here – much like Bancroft himself and Betty Compson in THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)!

6 / 10

A bit old fashioned...but that's what you'd expect from a 1929 film.

In 1929, talking pictures were still a novelty and some pictures in Hollywood were still coming out silent. So, it's not very surprising that this Josef von Sternberg movie comes off as a bit old fashioned. It's lack of incidental music* makes it seem a bit too quiet...but that was true of all the sound films of the day. Likewise, some of the acting is a bit stilted...and this was not at all unusual for 1929. So, I try to cut this and other movies from 1927-30 a bit of slack.

The title character, Thunderbolt Jim Lang (George Bancroft), is one of the most-wanted men in the country. He's been responsible for many bank robberies and deaths and the police are desperately searching for him. But their only lead is his old girlfriend, Ritzie (IMDB incorrectly spells it 'Ritzy' and she's played by Fay Wray). But she's sick of him and wants to go straight--and has taken up with a nice guy, Bob (Richard Arlen). But Thunderbolt has promised that if she takes up with ANYONE other than him, he'll get them...and he does this in a most peculiar way...while he's in prison! Huh? How does he do this and how does it all end? See the film and find out for yourself.

The film has some very good things going for it--particularly the mobster talk throughout the movie. It's all very tough and fun. Bancroft's performance is also quite entertaining (not necessarily GOOD but entertaining). Still, the movie's plot is very tough to believe though it is still entertaining to see today...even with its old fashioned style and bizarre scenes with Thunderbolt inexplicably in his cell with a pet dog!

*Instead of the usual background music, it's a quiet film--normal for 1929. But in all the death row scenes, there is often some sort of spiritual being sung...and wow were they annoying and overdone!

2 / 10

The sound ruined the movie

I understand this was one of the first films to use sound. But the sound quality isn't even the problem. It's the actors. The way they speak in this film sounds incredibly unnatural, like they weren't used to actually having their voices recorded before. The physical acting isn't bad, but I think up until this point the way the dialogue audibly sounded didn't matter because it would be edited with intertitles of dialogue in between. But in this film, the tone of the dialogue was a huge problem.

Even the music, and the way it was edited between scenes, left a lot to be desired. It sounded like the music from one room stopped abruptly when they would go to another room. Besides the sound, the characters were hard to take seriously. I can't really speak on anything else, because the poor audio truly did ruin any investment I could have in this story, and the film as a whole.

If I'm being honest, there really isn't much of a point in posting this review besides letting other people know, trust me, if you can't sit through this, you're not alone. It's not because it's too old. There are plenty of great films from the 20s. Watch Chaplin, watch Keaton, watch Metropolis, watch Sunrise, watch The Crowd, watch Lonesome. Watch almost anything else but this one...

6 / 10


The High-Light of this "First-Year" of the All-Talkie Hollywood in Renowned Director Sternberg Film is the Harlem Night-Club.

This Takes Place in the First Half and while the Remainder of this Gangster-Romance is Peppered with a Few Interesting Flourishes,

None Equate the Impressive Opening and Once the Movie Gets to Prison the Film is Absent Sternberg's Signature Touches.

In Face the Movie Grinds to a Halt and is just Uninteresting Banter and Prison's Inanimate Existence.

The Dialog Deliveries are Pause Laden, Rhythmic Readings that are Stiff, Laborious, and so Wearily Dated as to be Painful.

Fay Wray is Hardly a Presence, Richard Arlen is OK, and George Bancroft (Oscar Nominated) is Domineering but Hardly Special.

Overall, a Curiosity and Film Historians Should Give it a Look for Context and the Director's Complete Filmography.

But Casual Movie Fans and Seekers of some "Old-Stuff" are Likely to be Bored to Death and Very Disappointed.