Thursday, April 27, 2017

The Eastwood Way - Coogan's Bluff (1968)

Director: Don Siegel
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Lee J. Cobb, Susan Clark, Don Stroud
Country: United States
Rating: R
Run Time: 94 min

It's been awhile since I've done one of these, so I figured that I would resurrect the by gone and forgotten 'Eastwood Way' series of mine as I continue to slowly but surely make my way through Clint Eastwood's entire catalogue. Today's installment is 1968's Coogan's Bluff, a mostly forgotten early effort of Clint's that stands as one of his lesser works on a sheer artistic level. However, the character driven cop thriller marks several important stepping stones within the squinty eyed star's lengthy career as it was both his first collaboration with director Don Siegel and arguably the predecessor to Clint and Siegel's own Dirty Harry as far as gritty cop thrillers come. Even though the film isn't all that great, it carries great historical importance because of this.

When most people think of Clint's early cinema, the Man With No Name films and Dirty Harry come up. After all, those films are hugely iconic pieces of entertainment and represent the best of Clint's work in the mid 60s and early 70s. Unfortunately, most of the other films from Clint's early years, such as Hang 'Em High, Coogan's Bluff, The Eiger Sanction, The Beguiled, Two Mules for Sister Sara, Paint the Wagon, Joe Kidd, and High Plains Drifter, tend to be forgotten. They're mostly middling to solid genre efforts that haven't stood the test of time for a reason, but there's lots to extract from them on both an entertainment and historical stand point, with both Two Mules for Sister Sara and High Plains Drifter being top to bottom fantastic westerns that anyone can enjoy. Just about all of those other films are for hardcore Clint fans though, such as myself. Therefore, let's dive into one of those often forgotten Clint joints and make it somewhat of a lesser forgotten one.

Dirty Harry Origins: Coogan's Bluff

The plot for Clint and Siegel's first collaboration is rather simple, although the entirety of the feature is more concerned with Coogan as a character than the escapee plot at hand. Walt Coogan (Clint Eastwood) is an Arizona lawman who plays by his own rules. When he is hailed to New York to extradite a criminal, Jimmy (Don Stroud), with whom he is familiar, Coogan quickly finds himself in hot water when he loses Jimmy while transferring him onto a plane. Although he is pulled off of the case and reminded that he no longer has jurisdiction in New York, he still insists on going after Jimmy and bringing him in one way or another in classic Clint fashion.

I have to be honest and say that although the plot I just described sounds like a home run for an action star driven crime thriller, Coogan's Bluff is not exactly an exciting and consistently paced action film, but more so a character driven thriller reminiscent of a crime novel. Coogan spends more time hanging around for his prisoner to be set free, renting a hotel room, flirting with girls, and butting heads with police superiors than he does physically chasing his perp or beating up bad guys. It takes an honest forty minutes for Jimmy the prisoner to break free from Coogan's custody. And even than, the film still doesn't pick up its pace from there, and instead chooses to meander over the same territory from the previous forty minutes as Clint casually flirts with more ladies.

This is where the film got me though, as if I were one of the women that Clint were wooing. Siegel tricks you into believing that Coogan likes these women, only to use them for information relating to his case. Therefore, what seems like a scene that has nothing to do with getting Jimmy back, all of a sudden reveals itself as one. Now that's what I call tricky filmmaking. Coogan proves himself to be quite the jerk by using women this way, but it makes him a well drawn and interesting character who wears his moralistic beliefs on his sleeve, willing to do anything to catch his perp, even jeopardizing a friendship. Imagine if Harry Callahan were more of a jerk, and you'd have Walt Coogan. j

I'll leave it at don't mess with Coogan.

Speaking of Dirty Harry, it comes as no surprise that this film establishes the kind of gritty cop character who would go on to become Harry Callahan as Coogan bends the rules in order to get the case done, even to the point where he gets kicked off a case and yelled at by superiors, a staple of the Dirty Harry franchise. What separates Coogan's Bluff from its latter, and superior, follow up, Dirty Harry, is that Siegel eventually found a way to develop a more gripping plot with searing tension and consistent action sequences spread out over the course of the entire run time. Coogan's Bluff has some tense moments and bad ass action sequences to boot, but they all comes towards the very end of the picture, making the entire experience beforehand quite taxing and non-engaging.

Another sharp contrast between Dirty Harry and Coogan's Bluff is that the latter looks and feels like a T.V. movie, or even an extended episode of some non-existent Clint police procedural. The cinematography is mostly static, although select shots are quite in your face and strong. Most obvious is the flat pacing, which doesn't necessarily draw in the viewer or make them care all that much about what happens. Even all of the action is saved for the end. I don't want to say that the film is cheap, but it definitely feels lesser from a production stand point in contrast to the heights that Siegel would reach with Dirty Harry. And on top of all of this, the plot and story are terribly low stakes, which isn't a bad thing, but it definitely backs up my claim that it all feels more like a small scaled television production than an undeniably engaging theatrical one. 

A similar example would be Michael Mann's television film L.A. Takedown and his mid 90s blockbuster Heat. Both films represent an artist tackling the same material at two different points in their career and on two different mediums, but the differences are blindingly glaring, with one clearly the superior update of the other. Therefore, give Coogan's Bluff a handicap for not blowing your mind, and treat it as the batting practice equivalent of a gritty cop actioner in order to get to the home run that is Dirty Harry

Now that I think of it, Coogan's Bluff is also the more harmless version of Dirty Harry. Characters shoot at one another or have been convicted of murder, but no one ever kills anyone on screen. Even the fights, which are very brutal and result in blood, never result in deaths or terribly brutal injuries that guys can't recover from. In contrast, Dirty Harry features numerous kills from both the heroic and villainous sides of the picture, including deceased naked bodies and implied rape. It's a far harsher picture, no doubt about it. Still, Coogan's Bluff sports boobies, and that still gives it the old R rating. On a side note, I've noticed that a lot of Clint's early American films are adult in this manner and feature lots of casual and full frontal nudity that seems to come out of nowhere.

There's nothing quite like a pool hall brawl.

When you watch as many movies as I or any hard core film buff has, you eventually reach a point where you've seen just about all of the major films and infamous moments in all of cinema. Heck, even if you haven't seen Dirty Harry before, you've probably seen or heard of its iconic bank robbery scene. Therefore, whenever you watch a forgotten or lesser film, and discover a gold nugget of a scene amidst the rest of the average ones, it makes the journey all worth it. 

In Coogan's Bluff, that nugget is none other than a great pool hall brawl that comes a whopping hour and fourteen minutes into the film, a mere twenty minutes before it ends, and boy does it deliver. After convincing Jimmy's girlfriend to reveal his whereabouts, she takes him to a pool hall filled with ruffians and immediately throws Coogan to the wolves, resulting in a short but sweet pool hall brawl. Coogan defends himself as best as possible, throwing pool balls at guys, whacking them with broken pool sticks, and leaping from table to table until he's overwhelmed by the number of guys. 

It's all very Steven Seagal-esque, but unique in that Coogan gets his butt handed to him despite putting up a fight. In the annals of pool hall brawls, it's above Code of Silence, right up there with Mean Streets, but not as good as Rush Hour, nor the all mighty standard that is Out for Justice. There's also a solid motorcycle chase the concludes the film, with Coogan racing after Jimmy and across New York parks in a well shot and easy to follow chase that feels like a predecessor to the motorcycle chase from Michael Winner's The Mechanic. Overall, Coogan's Bluff makes you wait for the goods, but it gives them to you.

Coogan always gets his perp.

As if I haven't talked enough about the similarities and differences between both of Siegel's gritty cop films, it should be noted that Coogan's Bluff carries a hint of western imagery too it, especially in its opening moments in the desert. Coogan also wears a cowboy hat throughout the entire film, so there's that too. I'd like to believe the producers gave Coogan a bit of a western look because Clint had just come off of the Man With No Name trilogy and western iconography really stuck with him.

Coogan's Bluff is important in Clint's filmography because it began a five picture collaboration with director Don Siegel. Although their debut is a tad rough around the edges, it has its moments and lays the groundwork for superior pictures to come from the two. Walt Coogan himself makes for a nice fish out of water and westernized rendition on Harry Callahan who has less regard for hurting people's feelings. This slight difference from the almighty Callahan makes Coogan a tad more unique, and that much crueler. Siegel's two short but sweet action sequences are also big highlights, ranking high amidst Clint's entire career. Recommended.

Rating: 6/10 - A static and rough cop thriller that kicks ass in enough areas to make it worth viewing, especially for Clint heads.

The Eastwood Breakdown
Character Traits:
- Breaks rules established by superiors
- Uses people (specifically women) for information
- Will do anything to catch perp to a reasonable degree
- Has little patience for incompetence
Main Villain(s): Jimmy
Kill Count: 0 - Clint pulverizes several people but never kills a single one.
- Problem with authority/rules (as seen in Dirty Harry series, basically any cop role of Clint's)
- Gender politics (touched upon latter in The Enforcer)
- Drug use
- Counterculture (also somewhat touched upon latter in The Enforcer)
- Fish out of water
Cop or Cowboy?: Cop
Directed by Eastwood?: No
Champion Bad Ass One Liner: After Coogan finally catches Jimmy, the police pull up to him and Coogan proclaims, "I'm making a citizen's arrest!"
Champion Bad Ass Moment: It's no surprise that the champion moment goes to Coogan's throw down in the bar. He kicks ass and gets his ass handed to him. It's great stuff.
Poster: The artwork is fairly solid. It's just Clint's squinty face, made all the more menacing due to the dark orange and magenta colors that ornate it. It's very indicative of classic film posters where a simple design or image is made all the stronger due to the placement of the letters and the colors chosen. Not one of my favorites, but still solid stuff. Alternate foreign posters for the film honestly make it look like another Spaghetti Western.

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