I have to admit, I am a sucker for 70ies movies, this was the last golden age in Hollywood and compared to those days, we're now already on a 25 year trip through the desert with now light ahead.
Of course, since I just plain simply love this movie, I might not be objective in my praise, but IMHO this movie does offer a lot to praise. When I read through some other favorable reviews of T&L I found - here and there - lines indicating some apology that they consider this a great movie, but I don'think there is any reason to apology for any praise regarding this little gem.
Made in the heydays of "New Hollywood" (5 years later the party was over anyway) T&L might have been considered as a "throwaway"-picture by the studio, but it certainly was not one for the people involved. In those days there was abundant talent available and it was much easier for young cinema-lovers and professionals to get "the foot into the door". One of them was Michael CIMINO (aged 35 then), who was trusted enough by Eastwood and the studio to be allowed - with a mere two screenplays on his belt (Silent running + Magnum Force) - to direct his first feature (I think his later pictures and the stories behind them are known well enough). And what a marvelous job he did ! Like so many other directors of the 70ies Cimino proves the point that most of them made their best pictures at the very start of their careers. Cimino is one of them, whose first 2 pictures are his best 2 as well (as opposed to "Old Hollywood", when directors made their best work in their later careers, because they first had to free themselves from the rigid studio-system prevailing then).
Considered by some as a highly entertaining, but minor Eastwood-outing, this view has to be corrected. At this time Eastwood was already a seasoned veteran, who had worked with some of the best directors available these days (Leone, Siegel, to name the 2 most important) and had already successfully directed two features (so it can well be assumed he also lent his hand at this or that scene). Compared to that, Cimino was a complete "nobody".
T&L is also the first one, in which Eastwood gives a completely unexperienced director his first chance and - after a string of superb action/western-flicks - one of his first efforts to break the tendency to by typecast. Insofar his role in T&L is a step away from the Man with no name, be it western or cop, but of course - always knowing his limits - not a too far away step from his usual roles (a loner, here with more humor than usual). If wanted, one can consider this little gem as one of his first steps at "auteurism" (I know, this theory is aged, but not completely wrong).
Eastwood certainly did take this movie serious as did Bridges, whose fifth important picture this is (after Last Picture Show, Fat City, Bad Company and Last American Hero). Bridges was of course the perfect choice for this movie and Eastwood/Cimino certainly knew, whom they picked. The same goes for Eastwood-extra Geoff Lewis (still active today in US TV) and Gary Busey, who spends his time today in grade E action-schlock.
In addition to this perfect cast and the direction, which I would describe as one full of "lazy assurance" (although by a newcomer) we have a well balanced, highly entertaining story with superbly drawn characters (the movie is evenly balanced and to equal parts plot- and character-driven). The characters are not the usual cartoon-type cliché's, but believable slackers, living the day and planning a heist.
The whole movie has a superb aura of laid-back laziness and coolness, and this all comes completely unforced. In fact I'd even go so far as to say that it is maybe this special aura, which lifts this above all other road- and heist-movies I can think of (some come near, but not many). Right from the start, when we see Eastwood running through a corn-filed until the twisted end, this movie is full of small stories, vignettes and subplots, but without forgetting it's main story. With so much happening it is more than surprising, that it can keep up it's leisured pace, it's laziness, although there's in fact more happening in it than in many other faster-driven movies.
Also the ending - ATTENTION: SPOILERS AHEAD !! - is untypical for a Hollywood movie of the "old(er) era" = pre-70ies. Actually, when Eastwood and Bridges have found - more less by accident - the building, where they had hidden the money, hardly any viewer would actually expect the loot to still be there. But then, after this has been accomplished, everybody would wish and expect them to get away with it and drive off into the sunset happily. Both assumptions are not fulfilled. They do find the money, but they do not get away happily. The ending is bitter, but highly realistic. Contrary to some comments here, the given ending is not owed to the old morale "crime does not pay", in no way at all. First, Bridges going to petty-criminals heaven has absolutely nothing to do with the heist, it is just the result of bad circumstances resulting from a fist-fight (ironically, that's what the novelist behind Outlaw Josey Wales died of later). Insofar it has no morale at all, it just happens, because things like this also do happen in the real world (unfortunately). Eastwood and Cimino are clearly playing with expectations here. ...
./. unfortunately I only have 1000 words available here, but did need more, so please check the discussion board for the complete comment ... sorry, sometimes there's more to say than fits into 1000 words. :-)