Director: Josef von Sternberg
Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: George Bancroft, Fay Wray, Richard Arlen, Tully Marshall, Eugenie Besserer, James Spottswood, Robert Elliott, Fred Kohler, E.H. Calvert
Running Time: 91 min
BBFC certificate: PG
In 1929, when Thunderbolt was released, the ‘talkies’ were very much in their infancy and the use of sound, particularly effects and background noise, was either non-existent or not very sophisticated. Enter the great Josef von Sternberg with his first sound film, Thunderbolt, the movie he made before starting his legendary series of seven films with Marlene Dietrich, and a return to crime films for the director, following the pioneering silents Underworld and, the now lost, Dragnet.
What’s striking about Thunderbolt is just how sophisticated its use of sound is, to the point that it feels like a much later film and certainly not one of the earliest talkies. Dialogue overlaps between scenes, effects and background noise are used throughout (the gravel in the park at the start of film, laughter in the nightclub, a squeaky dog toy in the prison), jazz music plays in the background, and occasionally foreground, of the nightclub scenes and songs are played on a piano and sung in the background of the prison scenes. It’s a masterclass in using sound and was truly pioneering at the time.
Sticking with sound, as well as being the first talkie for von Sternberg, it was only the second for star George Bancroft, who, for me, should have had a bigger career in the sound era. After just a few years or so he was left playing supporting roles. Based on his performance in Thunderbolt that’s a real shame, as he’s fantastic, and fully deserving of his Best Actor Academy Award nomination.
Thunderbolt follows murderer ‘Thunderbolt’ Jim Lang (Bancroft), who is sent to death row after being arrested in a sting which involves his former moll, Ritzie (Wray). Whilst in prison, Thunderbolt seeks revenge, framing Ritzie’s lover, Bob (Arlen), for a crime he didn’t commit. The first half sets the scene, introducing us to the characters, the love triangle that drives the plot forward and the hunt for Thunderbolt, before his arrest. That’s the plot in a real nutshell, and it’s really best to go in not reading anymore than the synopsis on the back of the Blu-ray – and to avoid the extras. The real joy of the movie, outside of the use of sound, is where the story goes.
Thunderbolt, which is a pre-code movie (those made before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code), is an incredibly atmospheric film. The scenes in the Black Cat nightclub really make you feel as though you’re there with the patrons and performers, and the prison set is almost the complete opposite; minimalist in set design, mostly prison bars, yet still remains incredibly evocative and atmospheric.
Another highlight is the use of animals. The excellent opening follows a black cat through a park. In another scene a dog is followed into an apartment building, playing a pivotal role in the plot and a key moment that drives the story forward. These two scenes are highlights of a movie packed with highlights.
Thunderbolt is a real delight from start to finish, filled with excellent performances, brilliant production design, a really interesting (and at times surprising story) and exceptional use of sound, particularly given its age and how early into the talkies era it was made. It’s a real gem of a film.
Thunderbolt is released on limited edition Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films on their Indicator Label on 24 July 2023. The print is a HD restoration carried out by Universal in 2016. The age of the film must be taken into account when considering the quality of the picture and audio. For a 94-year-old film it looks very good, but it’s a far from clean or a sharp print, which is to be expected given its age. There are lots of lines and print damage can be seen throughout. The mono audio is in good shape overall, which means the joys of the use of sound in the film really shine through and help provide an understanding for just how great it is, particularly given how early a sound feature this was.
INDICATOR LIMITED EDITION BLU-RAY SPECIAL FEATURES
High Definition remaster
Original mono audio
The Guardian Interview with Fay Wray (1990): archival audio recording of the famed actor in conversation at the National Film Theatre, London
Tony Rayns on ‘Thunderbolt’ (2023): extensive discussion of von Sternberg’s classic by the writer and film programmer
Video essay on the film by film historian Tag Gallagher (2023)
Image gallery: promotional and publicity materials
New and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
Limited edition exclusive booklet with a new essay by Pamela Hutchinson, archival articles, an overview of contemporary critical responses, and full film credits
UK premiere on Blu-ray
Limited edition of 3,000 copies for the UK
The audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton is from 2021 and is carried over from the US Kino Lorber release (it was the only extra on that release). It’s a gem of a commentary with Pinkerton packing in a vast array of information covering everything from other film highlights from the same year, 1929, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, to overviews of, and background information about, many of the cast, including those in supporting roles. The technical merits of the film are covered, as are the two animal stars and there’s a lot about early talkies, showcasing just how ahead of the game Thunderbolt was. Well worth your time.
The 46-minute overview by Tony Rayns is fantastic, which is no surprise given he’s always excellent value for money, bringing an enthusiasm and wealth of knowledge to each of the overviews he provides. He talks about the origins of von Sternberg’s Hollywood career and of the movie, and highlights how it was the first film in which the audience will have heard Bancroft’s voice. All of the major players are discussed and Rayns highlights the many pleasures of the film, including the pioneering sound mixing, particularly in sequences in The Black Cat nightclub. A treasure trove of information.
The Guardian audio interview with Fay Wray is 90 minutes long and plays over the film. It was recorded at the National Film Theatre, London, in 1990. The early questions are clearly informed by the interviewer’s reading of Wray’s then recently published autobiography, On the Other Hand. Wray is on excellent form, covering her personal life and films, with plenty of questions from the audience. It’s a really engaging interview that, yes, does eventually cover her most iconic role in the original 1933 King Kong.
The brief photo gallery contains promotional material.
The 36-page booklet is first class (as is to be expected from Indicator) and opens with a brilliant new essay by Pamela Hutchinson which packs a lot of information and analysis into seven pages of text. A selection of archival pieces follow in an article about the making of the film, and the booklet concludes with a lengthier than normal section on Critical Responses, which is fascinating.
It’s a brilliant package covering pretty much everything you’d want to know about the film, and plenty more about its director and its stars. So, it’s another excellent release on the Indicator label of a very good film: a strong crime movie and a fascinating and ground-breaking pioneer in the then very new world of sound films. Highly recommended.