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  • For some reason I thought this film was a talkie remake by Josef von Sternberg of his great silent Underworld. Although George Bancroft is again the star here (and won an Oscar nomination for best actor) this is an entirely different storyline.

    Bancroft stars a a tough hood in love with Fay Wray. But she's trying to go straight with Richard Arlen, who works in a bank. A man hunt captures Bancroft and convicts him to death row. But even from the cell, Bancroft is able to frame Arlen for a murder during a ban robbery. Arlen is sentenced to death row and ends up across the hall from Bancroft. Will there be fairness? Will there be redemption? As in Underworld, Bancroft is terrific as the obsessed and all-powerful thug. His voice is great as he growls and groans and threatens. Wray looks stunning, and Arlen is good as the innocent man.

    For a 1929 talkie, this film has its stagnant moments when the editors didn't know when to cut. But it also features some terrific work by von Sternberg.

    The entrance scene into the jazz club is a barrage of trellises and picket fences... quite beautiful... and also boasts a really nice song from Theresa Harris (who usually played a maid). There's also a wondrous scene where Arlen has been hurt and is being tended by his mother (Eugenie Besserer). While's she's applying iodine, he pulls his hands away and the bottle smashes. Both try to clean it up and the scene ends in a giggling tickle fight. Totally unexpected and totally wonderful.

    Fred Kohler plays a convict. Tully Marshall is marvelous is a jittery warden.

    The ending is probably expected but is beautifully done.
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Thunderbolt (George Bancroft) is a notorious criminal, a gang leader, and his girl is Ritzy (Fay Wray). Some day she tells him: „I'm going to quit". He knows that there must be another man and tracks his rival (Bob, a bank employee) down, but finally he gets caught.

    That's the point where the film actually begins: in prison (death row). The very nervous warden (Tully Marshall is really great!) welcomes him with the words „Couldn't be more comfortable at the Ritz". He takes him to cell 3. „...and look out for pneumonia. Might give this place a bad name."

    There are 10 cells and the men call themselves by the numbers (a similar film is „The Last Mile"- 1932). Some of those occupiers form a singing group; but because „they took our tenor yesterday", one asks: „Hey, Number 3! Do you sing tenor?" Thunderbolt: „Who, me?" (laughs) „I kill tenors."

    The sound quality of this very entertaining and revolutionary movie (the actors are often not to see while they speak) is astonishing - considering the fact that it was made in 1929. It's true that the over-accentuated way of speaking (especially Bancroft) is today hard to tolerate, but because the sound film was very young at that time it's excusable.
  • ... 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.
  • 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)!
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Von Sternberg's original 95-minutes cut was never released. Instead Zukor and Lasky ordered the movie to be cut down to a more exhibitor-friendly length – which turned out to be 85 minutes. So if you're looking for smooth continuity, you won't find it in this film which proceeds via a series of jumps until both the principals find themselves in the Death House. Needless to say, the scissors were not taken to George Bancroft's scenes. In fact, not a single frame was removed from these scenes, which was good in a way because it meant that the really enjoyable Curtis Mosby-Theresa Harris nightclub footage was also retained in full. However, the movie is definitely off balance (and even a little difficult to follow, let alone swallow) until we arrive at the Death House where the rhythm finally (and unexpectedly) settles down and even allows humor (of all things!) to be injected into the play. Nonetheless, if a comedian like Tully Marshall seems a strange choice for a Death House warden (Tully had played serious roles – and played them well – but here is definitely cast as the comic relief), George is always on top of his material and so totally in control that he can even make the plot twists sound credible and his final scenes unexpectedly moving. He is helped out here by Richard Arlen, an actor who started at the top, giving incredibly gripping performances in such films as Wings, Beggars of Life and The Virginian and then gradually working his way down to the Pine-Thomas side of Poverty Row and finally the formula westerns of A.C. Lyles. As for Fay Wray, I would use the adjective, "disappointing". Her nondescript portrayal would be more tolerable had she been more attractively dressed and presented. As it is, one wonders why the charismatic Thunderbolt is so possessive of such an average-looking girl who is also so totally lacking in personality. Opposites attract, I guess!
  • Warning: Spoilers
    This is an odd little film whose off-beat humour goes a considerable way -- although not really quite far enough -- to excuse dodgy dialogue, perfunctory plotting and some very laborious line readings from the cast, from the big names down to the bit-part players. Richard Arlen, in particular, gives a fine performance... in those scenes alone where he can rely on silent-screen acting technique and isn't required to deliver any spoken lines, which unfortunately isn't very many of them! Fay Wray isn't terribly convincing here either in her role as hard-as-nails gangster's girl or as lovely and vulnerable sweetheart, and the film as a whole seems to veer unevenly between spoof and taking itself seriously. As a result, I found it hard to care very much about the fate of any of the characters, in particular the romantic leads. George Bancroft pretty much carries the picture single-handed as the eponymous gangster (he was Oscar-nominated for this role), with some success; but again he seems to be uncertain whether to play for straight-out melodrama or hammy spoof, and to be struggling with the transition to sound.

    The director's real interest appears to be in the Death Row scenes, where much of the humour occurs (there is a running gag where the other convicts comment on the action with close-harmony renditions of appropriate popular songs), and much of the rest of the film is merely a set-up to get to this point. (The bank robbery sequence is particularly perfunctory and confusing: frankly, if the charge hadn't been spelt out subsequently in dialogue, I wouldn't have had the faintest idea what Bob was actually condemned for.)

    It is worth persevering with "Thunderbolt" beyond the opening sequences, which are particularly laboured -- the film does get a bit better later on -- but this is nobody's lost masterpiece, I'm afraid. To see Richard Arlen do better, try "Beggars of Life"; to see Fay Wray, try "The Most Dangerous Game"; to see George Bancroft, try "Underworld". To see a better early talkie, try Rouben Mamoulian's "Applause" (1929).
  • Warning: Spoilers
    Unlike it's bigger rivals Paramount eagerly embraced talking pictures with both hands. They were one of the first studios in 1928 to bring out an all talkie movie with the sophisticated "Interference" and by 1929 boasted stars (Maurice Chevalier, Ruth Chatterton etc) who were foremost in their field. They also had a big star in George Bancroft, a silent star who came to fame in Josef von Sternberg's gangster movies and whose clear speaking voice guaranteed him a long career in talkies. Unfortunately ego got in the way but "Thunderbolt" was a mighty effort - it talked, in all the right places and in 1929 that was a very big deal. It was the 4th and final collaboration between von Sternberg and Bancroft - it wasn't their best effort but there was plenty of gangster violence and tough talk!!

    It was a stylish underworld showcase for George Bancroft. When you see other films of 1929 with awkward pauses and stilted dialogue - this film moved and talked at a rapid, natural pace - it was like Sternberg had been making talkies all his life. The stylization, especially in the early scenes, when Ritzie is bought in for questioning, she is seated on a raised platform, almost like a witness box, and she caresses her furs. Also the Harlem night club is seen through a lattice work of shadows (could it be a symbol for prison bars)?

    Music and songs are also incorporated naturally. When delectable Theresa Harris sings "Daddy, Won't You Please Come Home?", it is not just a throwaway song but is especially listened to by a thoughtful Thunderbolt and there is a wealth of meaning in their gazes. When he is on death row, the songs are supplied by the prison band. "Broken Hearted" with it's trite words, "here's the boy, here's the girl, here am I broken hearted" almost mocks the complex feelings of Bancroft and Arlen.

    The story is basic - Ritzie (Fay Wray) and Bob (Richard Arlen) meet night after night clandestinely in the park. He is a lowly bank employee, she is the girl friend of the town's most notorious mobster, "Thunderbolt" Jim Carson. She wants to quit and be decent again but Carson will see her in Hell first - furthermore he would track down the other guy if it is the last thing he does!! It almost is as Bob is caught in a holdup - all orchestrated by Thunderbolt and finds himself in the condemned cell, adjoining Thunderbolt's own. Jim has gruesome plans for Bob - but he doesn't count on the faithfulness of a scruffy little mutt!!

    Richard Arlen, like Bancroft, was perfect for the talkies - there is a really nice scene where Arlen is horseplaying around with his mother (Eugenie Besserer, who was Al Jolson's "mammy" in "The Jazz Singer"), a natural banter between the pair but in typical Sternberg style, the camera was focused on Fay Wray's reaction to them, a tearful smile playing around her lips.

    Highly Recommended.
  • 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!