Friday, July 1, 2022

Making a Killing in “Coogan’s Bluff”

I first saw Coogan’s Bluff more years ago than I’d care to count (OK, it came out in 1968), when I was a fledgling film critic for the UCLA Daily Bruin. Not much of a fan of action films, I was totally lacking in context with which to assess Clint Eastwood’s first of five collaborations with director Don Siegel. Today, familiar with Eastwood’s early spaghetti-western period as well as his later renown for tough-guy roles, I can clearly see how Coogan’s Bluff led directly into Eastwood’s infamous Dirty Harry period.

 The movie’s opening scene tells you everything you need to know about Coogan. Driving a jeep purposefully through the bleak but beautiful Arizona desert, he ignores the urgent bulletins coming in through his police radio. A Native American in a loincloth, armed with a rifle, seems to have the drop on him, but Coogan fells him with a kick to the balls, then snarls, “Put on your pants.” The guy turns out to be a wife-killer, so we’re not too sorry for him. But Coogan’s treatment of Running Bear is surprisingly cavalier: he chains him to the post of a local home, then scoots inside and initiates a bathtub romp with the pretty homeowner, whose other half is conveniently out of town.

 Deputy Sheriff Walt Coogan always gets his man. But he doesn’t care how many formal procedures he violates in the process. To take him down a peg, his superiors send him to New York City, to bring back a fugitive named Jimmy Ringerman (Don Stroud) who’s being charged with murder. The tight-lipped lawman and the Big Apple turn out not to be a good fit. First he’s stiffed by a cabbie who demands that his tiny satchel be charged as luggage. Then Ringerman is not immediately available for extradition: he’s suffered a bad acid trip and landed in Bellevue, which means a lot of red tape must be navigated before Coogan can fly home. And everyone he meets assumes that, with his Stetson and his pointy boots, he must be from Texas. So he’s hardly an “I ♥ NY” kind of guy.

 Still, there are compensations, Strictly in the line of duty, he gets it on first with a sappy social worker  (Susan Clark) who is far too protective of her clients to watch out for her own welfare. Then there’s the pretty but ditsy hippie chick (Tisha Sterling) who likes Jimmy Ringerman and psychedelics, not necessarily in that order. The women in this movie, who also include Ringerman’s hard-boiled mother and an ancient hag convinced that every man she’s ever met is out to rape her, are not the brightest representatives of the female of the species.

  Coogan loves sex, but he’s equally a fan of beating people to a pulp. Still, he can’t entirely hold his own in a pool hall where he’s jumped by a whole squad of Ringerman’s pals. He makes up for it later up at the Cloisters (yes, there’s some New York location shooting to go along with some highly artificial-looking interiors), where Ringerman is hanging out. They both commandeer motorcycles, and we’re treated to some classic stunt driving before Ringerman is finally felled.

 Which doesn’t mean Coogan can sidestep all red tape. The local police lieutenant, played by Lee J. Cobb, sees to that. But the film concludes with what passes for a happy ending, with Coogan and his prisoner heading home, while Susan Clark in a red miniskirt tearfully waves bye-bye.  

 Kudos to Lalo Schifrin for his jazzy score, and to Hollywood veteran Betty Field as Ringerman’s no-bullshit mom. 

Postscript:  My talented writer-friend Stan Berkowitz, who years ago was my Daily Bruin editor, contributed this comment: "Years ago, I worked with Herman Miller, who did the early drafts of the script. He told me he envisioned a sort of Gary Cooper goes to the big city kind of thing, but when Eastwood came aboard, he wanted to dirty it up, with those early (and somewhat gratuitous) scenes you cited being the clearest examples of that. The McCloud TV Series was closer to Miller’s original concept." 

 Thanks, Stan. for chiming in -- and for furthering my writing career back in the day.








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