Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
“Before “Dirty Harry”… there was Coogan.”
Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb, Susan Clark
Synopsis: An Arizona deputy goes to New York City to escort a fugitive back into custody.
In 1968, Hollywood was still unsure just how to get the best out of its newest star, Clint Eastwood, after his three Spaghetti Westerns for Sergio Leone had launched him into the stratosphere. Ted Post’s Hang ‘Em High had attempted to duplicate the look and feel of Leone’s movies with predictably unsuccessful results, so now Hollywood tried retaining that taciturn and uncompromising demeanour that had made Eastwood so popular and cast him as a cowboy once again, but this time removed him from his comfort zone amongst the desert and the tumbleweed and plopped him down in the middle of New York City. It wasn’t exactly an inspired creative or commercial move, and the result was a disappointing crime thriller that never feels as if it really knows just what it’s trying to achieve.
Eastwood plays the eponymous Coogan, a tough no-nonsense cop from Texas — no, wait: Arizona. We pretty much learn all we need — or are going — to know about Coogan from the opening scenes in which he outwits a Native American who has taken pot shots at him from his vantage point atop a rocky hill. Coogan disarms the man with ease, but instead of immediately driving him back to the town jail he stops off at a ramshackle home in the desert and cuffs his prisoner to a post on the porch. When he notices the Indian eyeing the cigarette he’s smoking, Coogan deliberately grinds it out beneath his shoe before letting himself into the house. Inside sleeps an accommodating blonde whose husband just happens to be out of town. So, essentially, Coogan is a brave bastard who screws other men’s wives. By the end of the movie we’re asked to believe that he has changed his ways somewhat because he offers a cigarette to the suspect he’s escorting back to the sticks. But I don’t know — he doesn’t seem to have learned a whole lot to me.
Coogan’s in New York to pick up bail-jumper James Ringerman (Don Stroud) from the jail in which he’s held, but when he arrives at the station he’s informed by the overworked Lt McElroy (Lee J. Cobb) that Ringerman’s recovering from a bad LSD trip in hospital and can’t be discharged until he’s fully recovered, which could take days. Naturally, Coogan’s none too pleased to learn that he will have to stay longer in the Big Apple than he intended, but his annoyance is tempered somewhat when he meets parole officer Julie Roth (Susan Clark), whose enlightened methods — which include permitting her charge to grope her boob not once but twice — are the complete opposite of Coogan’s more traditional tactics, which essentially amount to separating the charge’s hand from her boob with as much violence as is possible in a cramped office. Despite the disparity in their operational philosophies, and the fact that she’s royally ticked off with him, Julie melts under the weight of all that homespun charm and they go for an extended lunch together before Coogan invites himself around to her place. He might not get his pointed cowboy boots under her bed, but he does manage to get his stockinged feet on her coffee table, and is doing a great job of making her come over all woozy and sexually flustered until a client phones out of the blue and Julie, with unseemly haste, invites her to come around for a chat in five minutes.
With his amorous intentions well and truly foiled, Coogan decides early the following day to simply take his man and get the hell back to Dodge, even though he still hasn’t yet received permission to do so. Ringerman comes along peaceably enough, but that’s because he’s arranged with his girlfriend, Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling) and an associate (that well-known tough guy actor David Doyle, who’s probably best known for playing Bosley in the 1970s Charlie’s Angels TV series) to whack the surly cop over the back of the head the moment he’s distracted. Coogan comes to in a hospital bed with a not-too-happy McElroy informing him that he’s no longer a cop while he’s in New York, and would he please mind returning to whatever dung heap he came from? But now it’s personal, and Coogan has no intention of returning home without his man.
I can’t help thinking that Coogan must have seemed like something of a throwback even in 1968, so that now, nearly half a century after the movie was made, he comes across as something of a misogynistic arsehole. He shows no interest in Julie other than a purely sexual desire so that, the moment he realises sex isn’t on the agenda he simply gathers up his boots and splits. And he doesn’t treat her any better as the movie goes on, rummaging through her drawers — which she strangely keeps at home rather than the office — to get the lowdown on the client who happens to be Ringerman’s girlfriend while Julie’s in the kitchen cooking her world-beating pasta sauce, and then splitting without a by-your-leave once he gets the information he needs. And seeing as Julie seems to be a little slow in coming across he sees nothing wrong with making the moves on Ringerman’s girlfriend when he realises she’s liable to be much more compliant.
The storyline of Coogan’s Bluff is pretty slim, and is split equally between that stuttering romance which goes nowhere (and yet still has Julie dashing to the helipad atop the Pan Am building to wave off our anti-hero at movie’s end), and the pursuit of Jimmy Ringerman who proves to be about as elusive as a sixteen-year-old shoplifter trying to make a getaway on his kid brother’s BMX. The characters are thinly drawn stereotypes, all of whom under-estimate Coogan simply because he wears a cowboy hat and pointy boots, and the incredibly dated scenes which explore New York’s alternative culture possess that horribly empty feel of a deliberate attempt to be cool by people who don’t understand or care about the life they’re depicting.
(Reviewed 2nd December 2013)