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DVD SAVANT

Coogan's Bluff


Coogan's Bluff
Universal
1968 / B&W / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 93 min. / Street Date June 1, 2004 / 14.98
Starring Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb, Susan Clark, Tisha Sterling, Don Stroud, Betty Field, Tom Tully, Melodie Johnson, James Edwards, Rudy Diaz, David Doyle
Cinematography Bud Thackery
Art Direction Alexander Golitzen, Robert C. MacKichan
Film Editor Sam E. Waxman
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Dean Riesner, Howard Rodman and Herman Miller
Produced by Richard E. Lyons, Don Siegel
Directed by Donald Siegel

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Back from Europe and cashing in on his new notoriety as The Man With No Name, Clint Eastwood made a disappointing western (Hang 'em High) but struck paydirt in Coogan's Bluff, a predecessor to Dirty Harry that pits a straight-talking Arizona deputy against big city corruption. As the film's original tagline proclaimed, "Clint Eastwood gives New York twenty four hours to get out of town." The film is badly dated but fascinates in its pandering to the conservative backlash of the time.

Synopsis:

Arizona Deputy Sheriff Walt Coogan (Clint Eastwood) is sent to extradite bad guy James Ringerman (Don Stroud) from Manhattan, and runs into a wall of hostility and red tape represented by NYPD Det. Lt. McElroy (Lee J. Cobb). Breaking the rules, the westerner springs Ringerman from the hospital jail but then loses both his prisoner and his gun. Coogan is taken off the case and McElroy demands that he leave the city, but the rural lawman opts to track down his man anyway. At the same time, Coogan woos and exploits a cerebral probation officer/psychiatrist Julie Roth (Susan Clark) to find a connection to his prey - a spaced-out teenager named Linny Raven (Tisha Sterling).

Don Siegel's first collaboration with Clint Eastwood is a wince-inducing fossil that nevertheless struck a solid chord with 1968's "silent majority." Audiences hooted in approval when Eastwood's laconic deputy smashed his prisoner on the head with a rifle butt in the first scene, showing everyone the correct way to deal with lawbreakers. Eastwood got a similar accolade at the end when he throws his prisoner at the feet of the NYPD with the snarl, "I'm making a citizen's arrest!" It's only a short hop from there to the endorsement of ruthless police brutality in Dirty Harry.

Coogan's Bluff was beautifully engineered to cut through the socio-political confusion of 1968, when conservatives feared that riots, assassinations, protests and a wild new youth drug culture were spelling an end to Western civilization. Eastwood's deputy comes on like Capra's Mr. Deeds, and audiences ate up on the spectacle of The Man With No Name being cheated by taxi drivers and pushed around by most everyone he meets. As for Coogan's ignoring due process to spirit his prey out of jail, that's the kind of thing that heroes are supposed to do.

But Coogan's Bluff changes the game by portraying "the Establishment" as either dysfunctional or firmly on the side of mush-brained liberal theory. Coogan's single-minded task is belittled and sidetracked by Lee J. Cobb's insulting detective, who keeps calling him Tex. Coogan is sapped by bad guys, and the NYPD blue is treating him like he's the criminal. Our sympathy is totally with the loose cannon from Arizona. His quiet vigilante justice is positioned as morally superior to everything we see.

1968 was a couple of years before the accepted beginning of Women's Lib, and Coogan's Bluff will delight people who think that liberated ideas are nothing more than PC B.S.. As the Alpha Male macho stud, Coogan sees nothing wrong with bedding a married babe in Arizona (Melodie Johnson of The Moonshine War) and mercilessly harrassing probation officer Julie Roth. Her character is twisted into a total bubblehead to suit Coogan's straight-shooter style, just the way Lee J. Cobb's detective is made into a boor to provide a similar contrast to the deputy's direct manner: "Oh. A Man's gotta do what a man's gotta do stuff, huh?"

In order to enforce Coogan's rightness, Julie is introduced in a ridiculously contrived scene where she purposely allows sicko probationary thug Joe (Seymour Cassel of In the Soup) to fondle her breast so as not to trouble his confused psyche, the poor fellow. When he roughs up the creep, Coogan becomes the bad guy. It's perfect writing to appeal to the confused middle class that wanted to to see someone strike back at all the obscenities and shocking liberal permissiveness fed them in the media. What's needed is a country boy like Coogan to knock some sense into people. The scene is a key sample of Nixon-style devisiveness: stop trying to understand hippies, sickos and protesters - the cure-all is an old-fashioned paddling.

Susan Clark's Julie is a sad character indeed. Her liberalism is of course a sham, as she secretly loves being stalked, bullied, and pushed around by the assertive Coogan. The Coogan character now plays as a total ass, making with the polite behavior while dragging Julie on his own forty-yard dash to the bedroom. The lesson is of course that real men are silent do-it-my-way types from the "honest" rural environs, and women just need to be told what they really want. The film thinks it's funny when Coogan repays Julie's reciprocation by raiding her files and ditching her. And that makes her seem five times the bimbo when she shows up at the end (in a flame-red miniskirt and go-go boots) to wave goodbye to a guy who's shown no permanent interest in her whatsoever. 1

Naturally, Coogan shows New York the error of its ways, kicking butt when its necessary (literally, in the case of a hotel hooker) and getting to the bottom of the case in short order. In one scene he stalks through a hippie nightclub in his stetson, an image that a year later would be associated with homosexuality in Midnight Cowboy. With the brand-new rating system in force, the visuals flirt with nudity in an obligatory body-painting scene. Coogan is steered to his prey by a topless go-go dancer who slides down a cable from the rafters and into his arms. Naturally he's as oblivious to her come-on as he is to the gays prominently swishing away in the periphery. I can easily imagine that ten million average American parents saw this scene and decided that their teenagers' outings would have to be strictly controlled from then on: "Sex! Drugs! Queers! Oh My!"

Coogan's Bluff was shot in flat 35mm, whereas Don Siegel's Madigan from the same year and same studio was one of the Techniscope cheapie productions that look more like TV movies. Eastwood and Siegel really hit it off and their association led to the actor's directing career. Writer Dean Reisner would continue with both directors, providing tough-minded, well-scripted stories for Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter and other pictures.

The supporting cast has some good surprises. The great actress Betty Field is an uncooperative harridan. Don Stroud as the nasty bad guy would return as a nasty good guy in Madigan. James Edwards (The Manchurian Candidate, The Killing) is an undercover detective and Tisha Sterling the wigged-out druggie babe who's supposed to be 17 years old (she looks 25 if she's a day). Interestingly, Coogan knows her age and sleeps with her just the same. David Doyle of TV's Charlie's Angels makes an unlikely-looking poolroom thug. Old Universal contract player Robert Osterloh (Criss Cross) has short bit as another Arizona deputy.

Hinting that the whole movie might have been initiated as a thematic inversion of the previous year's In the Heat of the Night, Lee J. Cobb's cop comes around and gives Coogan a fond farewell, even returning his cowboy hat. It's not particularly clear what the script wants to say when Coogan offers his NYC prisoner a cigarette after refusing one to his Indian prisoner back in the prologue. We haven't seen Coogan change or "grow" one iota, so surely they aren't trying to tell us he's learned anything. Julie's dialogue also identifies red as the "color of pity," so what's her gaudy red outfit all about in the last scene?

Everyone seems to agree that the early 70s TV show McCloud is a spin-off of this feature.


Universal's DVD of Coogan's Bluff looks fine in a handsome enhanced transfer; I only wish they'd re-do the superior film Madigan the same way. There aren't any extras, which can only be explained by Universal competition with Warners, the studio where Eastwood has spent most of his career from the early 70s on. A special edition might be taken as free publicity for what is now a predominantly Warners personality-franchise.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Coogan's Bluff rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 31, 2004


Footnote:

1. Susan Clark was the most overused but also the most versatile Universal contract player of this time, showing up in major roles in at least a dozen films: Colossus: The Forbin Project, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, Airport, The Skin Game, Skullduggery and Madigan. You get the feeling that she was a major asset for every picture but probably was cast to cut down on studio overhead. She's an echo of the old studio system and a 70s counterpart to 50s Universal contract actress Julie (Julia) Adams.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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