Tuesday, January 24, 2012

33. COOGAN'S BLUFF (1968)

This was the first of several collaborations between actor Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel, and it's not hard to imagine how it came about. After making his three epic westerns for Sergio Leone, Eastwood was clearly homecoming star material, and here was a role that would not only gentrify and Americanize his Italian Western image, but poise him so that he might literally straddle the generation gap.

It's the story of Walt Coogan, a thirtyish Arizona deputy sheriff who travels to New York City to bring a fugitive back to justice, only to discover they do things a bit differently there; it quickly turns into a none-too-subtle confrontation between righteous Old Western ways and eastern Big City ways (personified by flint-nosed, MADIGAN-hatted desk detective Lee J. Cobb). The latter are less conservative, slyer and ultimately less honest... but Tex (as he's disparagingly called down several noses) makes some slips along the way himself, so by the final reel both sides learn some common courtesy from the other. Because this movie was made in 1968, it also embodies the cultural tension between the younger and the older guard, with Coogan representing the straight and narrow in a clash with the psychedelic crowd. (As part of a nightclub's light show, the Universal release interjects -- between a bunch of kaleidoscopes and painted nipples -- some stock footage of the title creature from 1955's TARANTULA!, which a young unbilled Eastwood was responsible for napalming to death.) The man Coogan is supposed to bring back to Arizona, played by Don Stroud, is stuck in a mental hospital for some LSD-fuelled hijinx, until he bluffs him out (hence the title) and loses custody of him during a surprise attack -- led by, of all possible hooligans, David Doyle. To get his hands on him once again, Coogan romances a parole officer (Susan Clark) and actually sleeps with Stroud's main squeeze (Tish Sterling), who earlier encouraged Stroud to murder him when he regained the upper hand.

I enjoy a good Siegel film as much as anyone -- INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, THE VERDICT, THE LINEUP, THE KILLERS, FLAMING STAR, DIRTY HARRY of course, THE BEGUILED -- but I tend to find him less focused and hard-hitting than unsubtle and broad-firing, overrated by fans who attribute auteur status to him simply because he made crime pictures more violent and socially conscious. This film illustrates his tendencies toward blatancy and overstatement, and when the story devolves into action (as in a protracted motorcycle chase), there are points when the camera seems to give up following the action -- actually flailing skyward and cutting away to passing roadside. One thing that's intriguing about COOGAN'S BLUFF, which was produced when the MPAA ratings system was still new, is that it's unusually lascivious for an Eastwood picture; he usually got seduced in the Harry Callahan pictures ("What does a girl have to do to sleep with you?" asked a neighbor in MAGNUM FORCE; "Try knocking on the door," he winked), but here he actively pursues, leers at, and toys with women -- while being bathed by one in an early scene, he tries to fire a slippery bar of soap into her inviting cleavage. Generally speaking, all of the film's women are treated as playthings, art objects, molls or whores. Coogan seriously betrays Clark's character, a professional woman with whom he seemed to be courting a serious relationship -- and, presumably to give her prominent-but-shafted character some entitled closure, she arrives at the heliport atop the PanAm Building to say -- in longshot -- that all is forgiven, and to blow kisses to camera as he flies away and the end credits roll.

Worth seeing as a coltish prelude to an important screen partnership, but not too impressive on its own merits.

Viewed on Encore Westerns. 

4 comments:

  1. Scorsese was offered the script for Beverley Hills Cop, and said something like, "This is Coogan's Bluff." Is it the first Detective-Fish-Out-of-Water movie?

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  2. I must admit, as much as I treasure Siegel's better movies, his memoir--"A Siegel Film"--might just be better than his filmography.

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  3. The title "Coogan's Bluff" is also a double entendre, since there is an area in upper Manhattan with that name where the Polo Grounds used to be located (that's why the famous "The Giants Win the Pennant" homer by Bobby Thompson is known as "The Miracle of Coogan's Bluff"). The part of this film that has stayed with me is the end scene, shot at the Pan Am Building heliport. I remember watching the helicopters take off and head for JFK as a kid, until the tragic day in 1977 when a helicopter crashed at the helipad killing 5 people including director Michael Findlay.

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  4. In a career that includes Play Misty For Me, The Beguiled, and Tightrope, I don't find Coogan's Bluff stands out as particularly lascivious for Eastwood.
    And was it a rule that if a movie had the Universal logo on it during the late sixties/early seventies Susan Clark had to play the female lead?

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