Thunderbolt has some excellent use of sound. It’s a very early talky and I’m hesitant to say any of its uses were innovative, because the word suggests others picked up on the techniques and developed them. Most of Thunderbolt‘s singular sound designs didn’t show up again in Hollywood cinema for over twenty years. The way von Sternberg uses on camera singers, showcasing them as a performance for the characters to watch, not for the audience to see, doesn’t resemble any of the ostensibly similar scenes in the 1930s. The overall sound design–the street scenes, the edits–resembles German film a lot more than American; there’s a particular lack of flash to von Sternberg’s tone.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of flash in the screenplay. In terms of plotting, Thunderbolt is exquisite. The first half of the film operates without a protagonist. All of the films scenes are long, but those first forty-five minutes play even longer due to the passage of time (a couple months). There’s the initial setup, with Fay Wray and Richard Arlen as young lovers who get picked up by the police. It seems Wray’s got an infamous paramour, played by George Bancroft (as the titular Thunderbolt, a moniker describing his lethal right). There’s some stuff with Wray and Bancroft, then a very pre-code scene with Wray staying with Arlen and mother Eugenie Besserer, and finally the development into the second half of the film.
During the first half, Besserer and Arlen are good together, Wray is mediocre (she has some effective scenes, but the dialogue’s clunky for most of her performance) and Bancroft is overblown. There are some noisy police detectives too.
The second half of the film, with Bancroft on death row, is where Thunderbolt starts to pick up. The character–going into the second half–is already supposed to be somewhat endearing, because he cared for a stray instead of promptly murdering Arlen (and, presumably, Besserer). The second half doesn’t try to rehabilitate him. Instead, it’s a goofy prison movie with Bancroft as the gangster (who we never actually see commit any crimes in the running time). There’s some decent stuff, a few good scenes here and there; really, it’s about Bancroft all of a sudden becoming the film’s lead. His performance is occasionally shaky, but it doesn’t matter. He commands the screen.
The melodrama soon kicks in (Bancroft, from prison, frames Arlen and Arlen ends up on death row and there’s conflict) and the film can’t narratively recover from it. There are still some decent scenes, some excellent shots from von Sternberg, and Bancroft maintains. Arlen, on the other hand, is silly and awful. It’s a bit of a surprise too, because he was fine during the first half.
There’s also Tully Marshall as the absurd prison warden. It’s a movie about an innocent man on death row and there’s this goofy prison warden running around, aping for laughs. Bancroft’s got some funny observations too, but Marshall’s something else entirely. He belongs in a different picture.
Thunderbolt foolishly tries to rehabilitate its protagonist (and inevitably, I suppose). It just goes about it in the worse way possible. It removes the agency from the character, making his salvation a passive event. Instead of being interesting, it’s de facto.
The film gets long during its lengthy scenes, especially after the more interesting technical methods cease. It’s decent instead of interesting.
Directed by Josef von Sternberg; screenplay by Jules Furthman and Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on a story by Charles Furthman and Jules Furthman; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Helen Lewis; produced by B.P. Fineman; released by Paramount Pictures.
Starring George Bancroft (Jim Lang), Fay Wray (Mary), Richard Arlen (Bob Morgan), Tully Marshall (Warden), Eugenie Besserer (Mrs. Morgan), James Spottswood (‘Snapper’ O’Shea), Fred Kohler (‘Bad Al’ Friedberg), Robert Elliott (Prison chaplain), E.H. Calvert (Dist. Atty. McKay), George Irving (Mr. Corwin) and Mike Donlin (Kentucky Sampson).