“…yesterday we had a prisoner in custody. Today we’ve got a fugitive wandering around with your gun in his pocket.”
Coogan’s Bluff (1968)
Directed by Donald Siegel
Written by Herman Miller, Dean Riesner, and Howard Rodman
93 minutes, Rated R
It should be noted that while I do believe very strongly in the wonderment of an audience experiencing a movie’s twists and turns on their own, these reviews will not shy away from spoilers if they are necessary to discussion of the film.
Quick rating: 2/5
There are two directors typically credited with being instrumental to the rise of Clint Eastwood’s popularity in film. The obvious first director is Sergio Leone, whose iconic Man With No Name trilogy made Clint Eastwood a star back in his home country. The second is Don Siegel, who would eventually collaborate with Eastwood five times over the next ten years. One of those collaborations (Dirty Harry in 1971) is quite possibly solely responsible for making Eastwood a household name.
Coogan’s Bluff, Clint’s first collaboration with Don, is not Dirty Harry. Not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not even Harry and the Hendersons.
I’ve owned this movie for years and never gotten around to watching it. The viewing of this film that I have done in order to write this review was the first time I have ever watched this movie. I planned to watch it twice, taking notes on the second viewing. I could not bring myself to watch it a second time. I can’t completely say that I hated it, but my trajectory of impressions as I watched it for the first time are simply put: it starts out slow, it becomes mildly amusing, I start to lose interest because of a pretty major character flaw, I completely lose interest because the action scenes are either ho hum or edited so quickly that they can’t be followed, I am flabbergasted that I feel so “meh” about an early Clint Eastwood film.
To begin with, the film itself is centered around an incredibly faulty premise. In the first few scenes, we see Clint (playing Arizona sheriff’s deputy Walt Coogan) in the act of apprehending an armed fugitive that has made camp up in the Arizona mountains. Once the bad guy has been arrested, rather than taking the fugitive to jail, Coogan takes the fugitive to his married girlfriend’s house. Here, he handcuffs the suspect to the railing of her porch and then heads inside the house for a little bit of “afternoon delight”. She refuses to have sex until he has washed off the Arizona dust from his body, which is how Coogan winds up nude and soaking in her bathtub when his boss storms in, raising holy hell about Coogan having left the traffic stop he has been assigned to. Dialogue at this point contains an expository list of other grievances committed by Coogan and then a demand to report immediately to the station to receive debriefing for a trip to New York to extradite a wanted murderer. All of this is for comic effect, to be sure, but the very notion that they would be sending such a documented troublemaker all the way across the country unsupervised as a reward for being such an in-general fuck-up is patently ridiculous.
Once in New York, some genuine laughs are mined from Cowboy Coogan trying to understand the big city. There’s some clever dialogue between Coogan and Lieutenant McElroy (played by Lee J. Cobb). From here, the plot begins to happen and the whole movie starts to fall apart. The plot: Coogan has to wait in New York City for extradition papers from the New York Supreme Court because the fugitive– a certain James Ringerman (played by Don Stroud)– has been locked up in a psychiatric hospital after taking too much LSD. In the meantime, he will attempt to seduce a sexy social worker (played by Susan Clark), despite her fairly constant insistence that she is not interested. He will have sex with a hippie girl (played by Tisha Sterling) who is intimate with Ringerman. He’ll dance with a mostly-naked women at a psychedelic nightclub. He’ll get into a poorly-edited bar brawl. He’ll participate in an anti-climactic motorcycle chase. At some point, he will trick mental-health professionals into releasing Ringerman, only to have Ringerman’s girlfriend– the aforementioned hippie girl– club him in the head, allowing Ringerman to escape with Coogan’s service revolver. He will also squint a lot and just about bore me to death.
I’d be curious to know the chronology of when Clint Eastwood agreed to do certain movies versus when he actually filmed them versus when those films were actually released. I assume there are some time-placement shenanigans with this film because it seems like a very strange vehicle to foist on the public right after Hang ‘ Em High, which is, inarguably, a classic. The movie being very uneventful aside, Clint Eastwood is immensely unlikable in this film. The character he plays is a creep. No, scratch that– he’s a Creep. With a capital “C”.
It is established early on that his girlfriend is already married to someone else. Within meetings of meeting the social worker, he is trying to seduce her. And this is not a give-her-flowers-and-chocolates-when-she-doesn’t-want-you-to sort of seduction. This is a downright skeezy continually-putting-his-paws-on-her sort of seduction. There is more than one instance of her not being able to complete a line of dialogue because Coogan has jumped on her and shoved his tongue down her throat. Later, when he agrees to behave himself long enough for a home-cooked meal, he seizes an opportunity to rummage through her confidential files to get the address of the hippie girl and then flee the apartment without saying “good” or “bye” or any number of polite things to say when you are taking your leave. After tracking down the hippie girl, he seduces her, seemingly for no other reason than that she is stoned and doesn’t say “No” when he propositions her, even though earlier in the movie she hit him in the head and absconded with his fugitive. It’s not just the character of Coogan, either. The entire movie has this downright crude view of women. Female characters are either submissive, stupid, up to no good, or prostitutes. The lone exception is the dancer in the psychedelic bar. This female character is just naked.
I mentioned the mundane action scenes earlier in this entry. There really are only two major sequences of action in this film and neither one of them amounts to a whole lot. The first is an extended fight scene in a pool hall. Essentially, it’s Coogan against a whole gang of thugs. There is some cleverness: pool cues used as weapons, cue balls used as projectiles. But the sequence is so quickly-edited that it’s difficult to follow. The second is a motorcycle chase between Coogan and Ringerman. This sounds exciting on paper, but in execution it is not. The entire sequence is just Coogan on a motorcycle, driving behind his foe. It’s not even a high-speed chase. Once, they drive down a flight of stairs. But there’s no tension to this scene, no sense of danger. It just abruptly ends when Ringerman’s cycle eventually falls over.
Let me be clear . . . I don’t completely loathe this movie. In the first half hour, there is some remarkably clever dialogue and a great performance from Lee J. Cobb. I was enjoying myself until any other character showed up, and then it just started leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Again, it strikes me as odd that Clint Eastwood would follow up such enduring classics with a movie this obviously mediocre.