Coogan’s Bluff: Don Siegel’s solid Cop drama transformed Clint Eastwood from a ‘Western’ hero into a modern action hero

Coogan’s Bluff(1968) was the first collaboration between director Don Siegel and Star, Clint Eastwood. The film effectively transformed Clint from a star of Westerns into a modern, urban action hero.

Clint Eastwood is a multitalented movie superstar; he acts, directs, produces and even composes music, but, over and above all this, what I find most admirable about him is that he has always been one of the most career-savvy star\actors of all time. More than all the artistic talents he possesses, it’s this keen business instinct – to understand what is best suited for him (as an actor & director) and how best he can use it to advance his career – that allowed him to progress from a bit player, to a TV actor, to a Spaghetti-Western-star, to the ultimate American icon, who, now well into his 90s, is still active as an actor\director while many of his contemporaries from the 60s, 70s, and even 80s are long dead\retired. One glance at his filmography, and you’ll realize that each film he has made was done in some way or the other to advance his career; that money (alone) was not the main criterion in doing even the worst films – he did “The Dead Pool” so that he could get to make “Bird” and “White Hunter Black Heart; he made “The Rookie,” so that he could get to make “Unforgiven.” The same theory applies to “Coogan’s Bluff (1968)” also. For starters, the film kicked off a very successful collaboration with director, Don Siegel, who would become his ‘American mentor’ – to follow Sergio Leone, who was his European mentor, and whose Euro-Westerns made Clint a big star in Europe & Asia. Siegel would be instrumental in turning Clint into a superstar in America also, with a series of 5 films, topping off with the iconic “Dirty Harry (1971).” Frankly, “Coogan’s Bluff” is not a top-tier Clint Eastwood film, and I would place at the very bottom of all the Clint-Siegel collaborations, but, taken on its own, it’s a very entertaining action film that allowed Clint to move away from the westerns for which he was known for without really moving away from them. Essentially, the film is a western in tone, style, and characterization, but set in 1960s New York City. Apart from this film, Clint had two other releases in 1968: “Hang’em High” – a Western very similar to his Leone films, but still Americanized enough to make it a domestic box office success; and “Where Eagles Dare” – a very popular WWII action picture that channeled his monosyllabic gunslinger charisma to be a foil for British thespian Richard Burton. Each one of them allowed Clint to expand his image and advance his career without alienating the audiences. This is something other Franchise\genre stars like Sean Connery failed to do- after quitting Bond, Connery took on wildly eccentric roles in very audience-unfriendly films, and thereby lost his audience-appeal; it took about 20 years for Connery to regain that level of stardom. Clint knew that if he has to move away from his Western anti-hero image, he must do it slowly. “Coogan’s Bluff” is almost a masterclass in showcasing how you do this; how you move a star, who has been strongly associated with one kind of a genre, into a different genre\ambience\world altogether.

The film opens in the Arizona desert, which strongly resembles the background of Clint’s spaghetti westerns. Indeed, the first character we see is a loincloth-attired ‘Indian’; which automatically tricks the audience into thinking that they’re watching a western. Then, we see a jeep driving down a dirt road (so, this is not exactly a Western, but we are still in the ‘Western’ mood), with a Stetson-wearing Clint at the wheel. He is Dept. Sheriff Walt Coogan, and there we have our first view of Clint as a modern lawman. We see him capture this renegade Indian and take him back – well not exactly; Coogan, in inimitable Clint style, stop over for some lust-filled moments with a female acquaintance, while the ‘Indian’ lies handcuffed on the porch. So, despite being a modern lawman, Clint is still a casually amoral gunslinger from the (new) west. And thus, just ten minutes into the film, Siegel has very cleverly transformed Clint into a contemporary figure. But wait, Siegel does not rush things, because soon Coogan will land up in the ‘Mecca of modernity’ that’s New York City; and we will see how uncomfortable Clint\Coogan is in adjusting to this new ‘world.’ So, both Clint and Coogan are ‘fish(es) out of water’ here; in the beginning, both look pretty uncomfortable in this world, but, slowly, they make progress; and, as the old-fashioned, womanizing and reckless cowboy-cop Coogan slowly learns to adapts to this new territory, Clint smoothly slips into a new screen persona. Of course, this persona will be fully formed only three years later in “Dirty Harry.” Coogan is ordered to extradite an escaped killer, James Ringerman (Don Stroud), from New York City. While in the city, he finds himself in conflict with the bureaucracy and a stubborn Police Chief (Lee J. Cobb)- who stands between him and his prisoner; there are a lot of legal formalities to be completed before Ringerman (who overdosed on LSD) could be handed over to Coogan. Not willing to wait, Coogan bypasses ‘due process’ with bluffs and lies, and manages to nab his prisoner, but he has woefully underrated his adversary; Coogan is ambushed and assaulted by Ringerman’s gang, and Ringerman escapes. What follows is a vigilante manhunt through the city, against the wishes of both the city police and his own chief back home, wherein Coogan attempts to recapture his prisoner and bring him back to Arizona.

First foremost, the film is truly a testament to Clint’s charisma: despite playing a very unlikeable guy, we still root for him at every turn. Though the big city ambiance is very different for a Clint film till then, it helps that Clint is basically playing a character he has played many times before (and he will play many times again)- that of a driven, laconic, mission-oriented, macho tearaway who would not stop at anything to accomplish his mission. And, to this end, he is willing to beat up anybody and seduce anybody. Most of the problems in the film are actually caused by Coogan, and then he goes about trying to correct them; and the manner in which he goes about correcting them is not very approvable either. And between causing\rectifying problems, Coogan also attempts to bed down every woman he comes across. He puts the moves on, both, parole officer Julie Roth (Susan Clark) and Ringerman’s hippy girlfriend Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling)- to satiate his lust as well as to advance his case. But, his rather Neanderthal ways of dealing with women has its downsides, as he gets to find out rather dangerously; Linny turns out to be quite an amoral & unhinged kind, who beds him, and then, betrays him and has him almost killed. But in true Clint style, he manages to fight his way out, and then return to Linny’s house, and literally kicks\throws her around till she gives in and point him to Ringerman’s hideout. The film is very 60s in its treatment of women (and lot of other things), and one has to accept it on those terms; even though Linny is as abhorrent a creature as Ringerman, and she deserves to be treated as bad as the bad-guy. Susan Clark’s Julie, on the other hand, deserved better treatment, even by 60s standards. She is constructed as an independent woman trying to get ahead in a masculine environment, but the characterization is inconsistent, as she seems to let\like herself be (metaphorically) kicked around by this out-of-town cowboy. Now, I’m not saying that a strong independent women does not repeatedly give into the wishes of an assertive, strong man she loves – there maybe plenty of cases of that – but the character feels very underdeveloped; maybe because it was a character with lot of potential that was not properly utilized. I suppose she was meant to be ‘just’ a little more than the sexy feminine presence in a masculine action picture; maybe the only person from the city who empathizes with Clint’s Coogan, and with whom Coogan can have a relationship, at least for the time he is in the city.

The film’s plot is simple, solid and straightforward- there are no convoluted plot twists or mysteries to be solved; it’s just- go into NYC, grab the prisoner and get back to Arizona. And Don Siegel, the spare, minimalist director that he is, keeps everything stripped-down, gritty and even grungy. The main locations in the film consists of seedy motels & bars, dirty police precincts, low-life neighborhoods, and the quintessential Hippy-era psychedelic disco clubs. There are maybe two (or three) action scenes in the film, with the Pool-hall fight being the best, while the climactic motorbike chase is quite silly but exciting. Surprisingly, Clint doesn’t kill anybody in the film, though the film has a strong undercurrent of violence, with Clint himself repeatedly getting bloodied & bruised. This maybe the film where Clint takes maximum punishment, and even gets bested by his enemies a few times in a fistfight. This was the pre-superstar\pre-icon Clint Eastwood; of course, once he became an icon, nobody could touch a hair on his body; they would be punched-out by Clint’s massive fists even before they can lay a hand on him. It’s also pretty short for a Clint film, running a brisk 94 minutes. But beyond its slim plot, it’s really the interesting scenarios that Coogan gets thrown into and the ‘fish-out-of-water’ situational humor that emerges from it that makes this film very entertaining. The film, especially the first half, is extremely funny. This was truly an image-advancement for Clint at the time; though Clint has been very darkly humorous in Leone’s ‘Dollar’ movies, this was the first time that Clint’s character itself is mined for laughs. Starting with his appearance: this giant oak of a man dressed like a cowboy and holding a conspicuously small attaché case standing in the middle of a NYC police station is itself laughter inducing.

The film’s title itself is intended to be a ‘double-meaning’ joke – even as it references the lead character’s reckless actions, it’s also a reference to a New York City natural landmark, “Coogan’s Bluff,” a promontory in upper Manhattan. Then there’s the ‘culture-clash’ thing that’s going at all times in the film’s narrative. Coogan, the Arizonan Cop, is repeatedly referred to as ‘Tex’ by the ignorant New Yorkers for whom everyone dressed as a Cowboy is a Texan. Of course, his wild-west law enforcement methods are always at odds with the ‘by the book’ manner in which law is enforced in the big city. There’s also Coogan’s primitive attitudes regarding sex & violence; his pathetic attempts at seducing the female parole officer that initially falls flat; his encounters with the spaced-out, free-love hippie culture of the late 60s; his dealings with the low-life crooks & drug-dealers, including a bizarre & a most entertaining encounter with Ringerman’s mother (played by Betty Field); or even a simple yet priceless encounter with a NYC cabbie (who tries to fleece him) on his immediate arrival in the city – everything is milked for maximum comical effect. It also helps that Lee J. Cobb, one of the greatest American character actors of all times, plays the top New York cop, Lt. McElroy, who has to keep Clint in line. He is a great foil for Clint throughout the movie. The film is also filled with the trademark Clint Eastwood punchlines and witty repartee, with Clint appearing to be far more outgoing and energetic in his sexual & violent pursuits; usually he’s rather laidback and nonchalant. This maybe also the start of Clint being portrayed as an irresistible sex magnet for women. Clint was almost a monk in the “Dollar” movies as far as women\sex is concerned; the same with “Where Eagles Dare” also. In “Hang’em High,” he was a tender lover trying to connect with a rape victim. This is the first time Clint has been brazenly sexual, with multiple women falling all over him- this would become a fixture of several of his latter films; he and Siegel would make “The Beguiled” just three years after this. In that regard too this film was a step up for Clint. Also, It’s plainly obvious that “Coogan’s Bluff” set the template for the fish out of water cop-comedies like “Beverly Hills Cop,” “48 Hrs.,” and “Red Heat” that inundated the 80s; that’s one of this film’s great legacy.

This comical narrative is contrasted with the very straight and serious antagonistic relationship between Coogan and Ringerman, and Coogan’s obsessive & violent ‘vigilante’ pursuit for Ringerman through the city- that’s disapproved by city’s lawmen; there’s no humor there, and it’s pretty much a hard-edged, adrenaline-packed, gritty narrative. These portions appear to be a dry run for “Dirty Harry” – Coogan becoming a sort of Harry Callahan without his Magnum .44. It’s really in these portions where the next 30 years of Clint Eastwood’s career (as an urban action-hero) was born. It also inspired the next two generations of Hollywood Action-filmmaking, where the hero is the anti-authoritarian, one-man-army, who goes against the legal establishment to obsessively hunt down the criminals. The year 1968 saw the release of a few more maverick Cop movies; Steve McQueen’s “Bullitt” was the most popular among them. Another one, “Madigan,” starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, was directed by Don Siegel himself. “Coogan’s Bluff” has a lot of similarities with that film, including the presence of Don Stroud and Susan Clark.

By this time in his career, Siegel had made some twenty-four films, but his reputation was mainly that of a B-filmmaker. this was the film that kicked him up a notch. Siegel always had a gift for turning pulpy material into pretty gritty & realistic fare, without sacrificing the entertainment aspect of it. He shows great attention to detail in the selection of locations and actors to impart a realistic feel to the film. The film successfully evokes the look & feel of the late 60s NYC. He also manages to combine the contrasting fun & serious\action-filled threads of the film into one cohesive whole; everything looks organic most of the time- though some of the scenes and Clint’s one liners fail to land. Siegel is helped immensely by (Clint & cop-film regular) Lalo Schifrin’s jazzy musical score and Bud Thackeray’s photography. Siegel has given a slightly drugged out, psychedelic overtones to some portions of the movie to reflect the hippie drug culture prevalent at the time. One big problem with the film – and this true of “Hang’em High” also – is that it has a sort of TV series like feel to it; i think mainly die to the film’s low budget and quite a simple plot. It seems that, to cut costs, the interiors were shot on Universal studios backlot; and it has a very different(and gaudy) visual feel from exteriors shot on real NY locations. And since the film is very much of 60s sensibility, it has not dated well at all- either aesthetically or politically. It does not have the slickness and polish of “Dirty Harry”. I think Siegel was still honing his style, though “Madigan” that came before this is a much more technically competent film; and the very next Clint-Siegel film, “Two Mules for Sister Sara” is perhaps the most visually beautiful film Siegel ever made. It also doesn’t help that a lot of films that came after “Coogan’s Bluff” has recycled its plot elements, and much more competently. So, in comparison, this film feels very jaded and unoriginal today . Anyway, I feel that more than telling a great story, or even making an extraordinary film, the main intention behind making this film was to ensure an image makeover for Clint, and market him to a modern American audiences. In that regard, the film is a grand success, and a very important film in Clint’s career. The film lead to a successful partnership between Clint and Siegel that would go on to produce some of the most iconic American films of all times; and subsequently turn Clint Eastwood into a bonafide American movie superstar & icon.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s