Serving as proof that Josef von Sternberg did make fine films before THE BLUE ANGEL, THUNDERBOLT is a bizarre gangster picture which is as much a romance as a thriller. Bancroft stars as the title character, a hard-edged bank robber with a dedicated following of underworld cronies. Like
all good mobsters, Bancroft has a soft spot for a special girl, namely Wray. She, however, serves as a catalyst for trouble when she falls for a young banker, Arlen, and asks Bancroft's permission to go straight. Before long, Bancroft has fouled up and gone to prison where he sits on death row,
Wray has devoted herself to Arlen, and Arlen has lost his job because of his association with Wray. Rather than lose his girl, Bancroft vows to kill anyone who steps between them. Bancroft shows no mercy while awaiting his execution and has his henchmen frame Arlen for a murder and bank robbery.
Arlen also finds himself on death row, in a cell opposite Bancroft's. Wray expresses her devotion for all the prison to see by convincing the warden to let her and Arlen marry on death row. Bancroft is moved by this show of love and, at the eleventh hour, on his way to the electric chair, he
admits to the frame-up and clears Arlen of any wrongdoing. Arlen and Wray are then free to start anew outside the walls of the prison.
Released in both sound and silent versions (though the 81-minute silent with titles by Joseph Mankiewicz was barely shown), THUNDERBOLT was another of those films produced during that transition period when audiences were beginning to expect the actors to speak. Essentially a visual director, von
Sternberg continued to put his energies into composition and visual atmosphere. Still, the sound techniques and experiments of THUNDERBOLT are far in advance of most other films of the day. Von Sternberg would later write in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, that "to be correctly and
effectively used, sound had to bring to the image a quality other than what the lens included, a quality out of the range of the image. Sound had to counterpoint or compensate the image, add to it--not subtract from it." It is this that he attempts in THUNDERBOLT. Even von Sternberg's use of music
is unconventional, choosing not to rely on a lush score to enhance (or as he would view it, "subtract from") the beauty of the image. This was von Sternberg's first sound picture and, for the most part, its sound innovations went ignored. As von Sternberg remembers, only German director Ludwig
Berger (best known for his co-directorial effort on the 1940 THIEF OF BAGHDAD) noticed, sending a telegram which read: "Saw your THUNDERBOLT and congratulate you with all my heart. It is the first rounded out and artistically elaborated sound film. Bravo." Starting the following year with THE BLUE
ANGEL, however, von Sternberg would begin an unbroken streak of critically acclaimed films that would continue until 1936's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. Includes the songs "Thinkin' About My Baby" (Sam Coslow), "Broken-Hearted," and "Rock-a-Bye-Baby" (both Negro spirituals). Bancroft, star of four von
Sternberg pictures, earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work here. He lost to Warner Baxter for IN OLD ARIZONA.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: Serving as proof that Josef von Sternberg did make fine films before THE BLUE ANGEL, THUNDERBOLT is a bizarre gangster picture which is as much a romance as a thriller. Bancroft stars as the title character, a hard-edged bank robber with a dedicated follow… (more)