Coogan’s Bluff (1968) Don Siegel

Don Siegel released two films in 1968, films bookending the changes that were happening in Hollywood, the first film representing the ending of one era and the second beginning of another. Both films are police dramas based in New York City and both films involved law officers who are troublesome renegades to their superiors. They also have some similar casting with actors, Susan Clark and Don Stroud, in both films, yet in “Madigan” starring Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda, we are saying goodbye to Hollywood’s old guard, while with “Coogan’s Bluff” we are welcoming the future in the cool, silent gaze of Clint Eastwood. Director Don Siegel himself was kind of turning a corner in his own career going from a “B” film director to the “A” list along with what would turn out to be the start of a fruitful and professional relationship with Eastwood.  

 Siegel teamed up for the first time with Eastwood who just completed his first starring role in an American film, “Hang em’ High” and was now looking to move on to his next project, “Coogan’s Bluff,” based on a screenplay by Henry Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman. The film is a fish out of water story, a culture clash of East meets West, city slickers meet small town country boy. Call it what you will but when the boy is Clint Eastwood the shit is going to fly.

Walt Coogan can be viewed as an early version of “Dirty Harry” Callahan, the type of law officer who does not stand much on rules or laws, unless they are his rules and his laws. Coogan’s mode of operation is that of a wild west sheriff, the kind of guy Texan Rick Perry has wet dreams about; only as Coogan constantly reminds everyone in New York, who call him Tex, he is from Arizona. We first meet Deputy Sheriff Coogan in the Arizona desert chasing after a Navajo man wanted for killing a woman. “Just his wife,” Coogan says later to his married lover (Melodie Johnson), whose place he stops by for a little afternoon delight after capturing his prisoner but before delivering him to the jailhouse. This remark is just one of a series of chauvinistic remarks made throughout the film.  Before Coogan and his lover finish their romantic interlude, the sheriff shows up. Fed up with Coogan’s independence and rebellion he assigns him to the job of heading to New York City to extradite a prisoner named James Ringerman (Don Stroud) back to Arizona.

In New York, Coogan’s is in culture shock, and so is New York when the two sides meet. His contact in Manhattan is Lt. McElroy, (Lee J, Cobb), a crusty, overtaxed man who hasn’t got the time or the patients to deal with this “cowboy.” Coogan arrives at the 23rd police precinct ready to take his prisoner, a wacked out small time hood, back to Arizona the same day only to be informed by McElroy that Ringerman is in a hospital coming down from a bad acid trip and cannot be moved until the doctors clear him, and then there are New York State laws and procedures to be followed before he can be handed over. McElroy recommends Coogan find himself a hotel room, spend a few days enjoying the city and it attractions.  

Coogan, ever his own man and never one for letting laws or procedures get in the way, bluffs some hospital staff attendants and gets Ringerman released into his custody only to lose him on the outside when one of Ringerman’s buddies (David Doyle), tipped off by Ringerman’s drugged out girlfriend Linny Raven (Tisa Sterling), beats the crap out of our concrete cowboy. More determined than ever, Coogan sets out on a path of destruction to find Ringerman leaving behind a series bruised men and women (emotionally and physically), until he gets his man only to have McElroy tell him he still has to follow the New York State rules and procedures before Ringerman can be taken back. Bruised, injured but not beaten, Coogan this time agrees to wait.    

This was the first teaming of director Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood who would go on together over the next few years to form a professional and personal relationship ingraining Eastwood’s persona deep into our celluloid consciousness.  Shot mostly in New York, the film, like Siegel’s previous film, “Madigan” captures the city during the turmoil of the Vietnam War. New York looks dirty and dangerous both in characters and locations. McElroy is a tough cop but seems to be losing the battle against a city filled with crime and local lunatics, and now a cowboy sheriff. Like the Vietnam War, McElroy and New York are stuck in a quagmire of rules and regulations which only Coogan is willing to break on through.  

 

Eastwood’s cool, silent, squinty eyed anti-hero, demeanor is already established in this early role. Patrick McGilligan in his Eastwood biography, “Clint: The Life and Legend,” states that “Eastwood was very clear in story conferences about being ‘sick of Hopalong Cassidy heroes and all that malarkey.’  He wanted to come off as a ‘heroic bastard,’ in the words of “Coogan’s Bluff” co-writer, Dean Riesner.  This the writers and Eastwood accomplish without a doubt. Coogan continually takes the law into his own hands going after his target and his low life friends as well as the women he comes across.  Susan Clark is Julie, a probation officer who Coogan almost seduces only instead steals some information from her files on Linny Raven, a patient of Julie’s, and Ringerman’s druggy girlfriend. When Coogan finds Linny, he first seduces her in hopes of her giving up the hideout location of her boyfriend. When that doesn’t work he then threatens her with violence to make her give up Ringerman’s hiding place. Coogan basically leaves a bloody path of bruised and battered bodies across the city. 

One of the joys of this film is the location filming in New York City. The old 23rd Police Precinct provides a nice atmospheric jolt to the daily lives and activities inside a police station in 1968. Other locations include the Pan Am Building, now the MetLife Building, The Cloisters, and Fort Tryon Park.

The script was originally written as a potential TV show and eventually the idea reverted back when the original screenwriter and creator, Herman Miller, turned it into the hit series, “McCloud” with Dennis Weaver. “Coogan’s Bluff” is not generally considered top notch Eastwood but it served at the time as a nice transition piece for Eastwood smoothly moving him from his western cowboy persona to the more modern day characters he would begin to portray.

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22 comments on “Coogan’s Bluff (1968) Don Siegel

  1. Very good review. I’ll be getting to the film myself shortly as part of my Don Siegel retrospective. The New York locations are brilliantly rendered and you’re correct to see it as in some ways a dry-run for San Fran’s Dirty Harry Callahan.

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  2. Dave Crosby says:

    Dear John,

    I didn’t see this picture, thank heaven. I admit to puzzlement about the appeal of lawbreaking cowboys who make chauvinistic comments about women while creating court challenges with their rules-breaking police work.

    Nonetheless, Siegel is a good, efficient director who gets it all on the screen, if you know what I mean. Nothing spectacular, just good film making.

    But these Eastwood movies directed by Siegel left me somewhat mystified. For example, I could never warm up to the image of a white cop putting a .44 Magnum to the head of a black crook and snarling, “Go ahead, punk— make my day,” during a period of great racial sensitivity. This is not to say that we aren’t in a period of such sensitivity
    even today.

    I appreciate your review, John, because it points up everything I’m glad to miss.

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    • John Greco says:

      Dave,

      While I like some of Eastwood’s films I was never particularly fond of the Dirty Harry films myself. I don’t think Harry Callahan was racist, he was more of an equal opportunity offender who made his own laws on the treatment of criminal types.

      Two Siegel/Eastwood films I would recommend are TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA and THE BEGUILED. Both are westerns, but are different, for lack of a better term. The first film was based on a story by director Budd Boetichher and the second is a gothic Civil War story totally unlike anything Eastwood had or has ever done.

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      • Agreeing with you completely on the above John. The Beguiled is one of the hidden gems in Eastwood’s back catalogue, which I’d set alongside High Plains Drifter and Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, as one of the strangest and most compelling of ‘mystic’ westerns. It’s also, alongside Charley Varrick and The Black Windmill, probably one of Siegel’s finest works. I’m a huge fan of Siegel’s stripped-down and keep it simple cinematic aesthetics, so utterly biased I’m afraid.

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      • John Greco says:

        CHARLEY VARRICK is a terrific film. Have not seen THE BLACK WINDMILL, so I will have to hunt that one down. I always thought THE SHOOTIST was one of his better films from his later period. He is not fancy but his films waste no time, each scene is right to the point. He even made one of the better Elvis films’ with FLAMING STAR.

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      • Flaming Star is due for my next review in the retrospective series. Anyone who can actually make Elvis vaguely convince on screen as something other than Elvis has to be commended.

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  3. Dave Crosby says:

    Thanks for the tips on the movies, neither of which I’ve seen but which sound interesting.

    I didn’t think Callahan was a racist either. I really just meant that I didn’t think this was a particularly terrific scene in that movie for a period in which there was such, for the lack of a better word, sensitivity regarding racial issues.

    I look forward to your review of “The Help.” I think there’s an argument to be made that having a white writer interviewing black people about the civil rights struggle is typical of Hollywood’s treatment of blacks in general. Very little from the black point of view, usually. The tactic seems to be to funnel it through a white sensibility, two FBI agents, for example in a film whose title I can’t remember.

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    • John Greco says:

      Got you, Dave. Sensitive was not a word in Callahan’s vocabulary, that’s for sure.

      THE HELP was an interesting film but I do think it was unrealistic in that these black women took a big chance considering the racial climate they were living in. The threat of violence had to be high and that part of it was pretty much ignored except for one scene by a black husband. It all seemed too easy. That said, I did like the film and there were some good performances.

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  4. ClassicBecky says:

    John, who I hope will still be my friend after this comment, I also hope that Clint Eastwood fans like you will not come after me with pitchforks and torches but…I never liked Eastwood very much. These films just never appealed to me and I don’t know enough about them to really comment intelligently. I do know a good article and writing when I see them, though, and this was definitely good. I hope that redeems me somewhat in your eyes! Also the fact that I thought Eastwood was incredible in “Unforgiven” and “Gran Torino.” Can we still be friends? LOL!

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    • Becky it’s impressive that you pick out two of the best of his later works so astutely. Unforgiven and Gran Torino are superb examples of why Eastwood is actually a fairly impressive old school Hollywood star. There are few of these guys and gals around nowadays (of the younger crop I feel perhaps maybe only George Clooney, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett have the ability to make almost anything they do at least part-way watchable). The thing I find so intriguing about Eastwood is the way in which he has clearly built a screen persona for himself that has grown and adapted down through the decades, without necessarily having anything to do with his own development as an artist. He’s always been a limited actor, but he has made the most of his own particular brand of minimalist charm and menace. Whilst as a director he is perhaps one of the hardest working and most versatile auteurs around. Unforgiven is the movie that will be his cinematic legacy, but I have massive soft spots for Michael Cimino’s delightfully scripted Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (with another great star in Jeff Bridges alongside him), the final film he did with Don Siegel Escape from Alcatraz, the immense ‘mystic’ Westerns that are High Plains Drifter and The Beguiled, and the brutal paean to vengeance that is Hang ’em High. In terms of his directorial efforts Bird, The Changeling, A Perfect World and The Eiger Sanction are all overlooked gems, even if the latter two have slightly below par Eastwood acting roles in them. It’s also worth checking out Invictus, as despite the rugby story it is surprisingly poweful (and also puts Eastwoood in the company of his heir apparent, Matt Damon). For me Gran Torino was most effective as a gentle cinematic elegy, as it was in effect riffing off of all those previous ‘hard men’ characters that Eastwood had played, from Blondie, to The Stranger, to Harry Callahan, to Frank Horrigan. When I went to see it at the cinema I found myself chuckling and at the same time ever-so-slightly morose, as it truly felt like Eastwood’s last, typically taciturn, hurrah.

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  5. John Greco says:

    Hi Becky – First, yes we are still friends (LOL) and second, I am not really a big Eastwood fan (I never could warm up to the Dirty Harry films). I generally like his westerns and some of the films he directed (Bird, Mystic River, Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers) but overall, Eastwood is not in my top anything list. UNFORGIVEN is one of his best, so I am glad we are on the same page with that one. The film is not politically correct by today’s standards but it, like all films, must be put into its proper perspective meaning the time it was made. Thanks very much for the kind words.

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  6. The Lady Eve says:

    Even though very popular, the “Dirty Harry” films were heavily criticized for their violence and perceived racism and sexism from the start – Harry’s style went against the tenor of the times. I didn’t like them at all at the time. However, I don’t view them in the same way now as I did then – I’m much more interested in the Harry character (fascinating) and find it interesting to take that step back in time and to visit a bygone era – the ’70s – in all its glory, with all its flaws.

    To be honest, “Coogan’s Bluff” isn’t my favorite Eastwood film. The cowboy in the big city gimmick doesn’t appeal to me – and I didn’t think Susan Clark brought much to the screen as a leading lady. I haven’t seen it for years, though, and, considering the interesting points you make here, I probably should give it another look.

    By the way, Tisha Sterling is the daughter of Ann Sothern and Robert Sterling.

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    • John Greco says:

      Eve,

      To be honest, I have not seen the Dirty Harry films in years probably because of the things your mention and the law and order at any cost politics of the film. I probably should take another look, if for no other reason that to see SF in the 70’s, a city I have been to twice but only in the past 12 years. It has been longer than that since I watched the DH films. Susan Cark, as an actress, I always thought was limited. You beat me to it on the Tisha Sterling/Ann Southern/Robert Sterling connection (LOL), I kept meaning to stick that in somewhere and never did.

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      • The Lady Eve says:

        John – I sometimes watch “Streets of San Francisco” (it occasionally runs in syndication here) just to see SF in the ’70s…which reminds me – I once posted on my favorite films set in SF and am going to have to revisit the subject again.

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      • John Greco says:

        I remember your excellent video of VERTIGO and San Francisco a while back. Look forward to you revisiting SF on film. A lot of great films were made there.

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  7. ClassicBecky says:

    John, I’m glad we are still friends! LOL! I’m interested now in why you think Eastwood’s Unforgiven is politically incorrect in some now that it would not have been when it came out. I never saw anything like that in it, other than the natural aspects of the story’s era. What is your take on that? (I know it is off the subject of your post, but do you mind having a little aside conversation?)

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    • John Greco says:

      My fault Becky, I was not clear in writing my comment. I was, at least in the head, referring to COOGAN’s BLUFF, and not to UNFORGIVEN. After rereading what I wrote, I can see why you picked up on it as me talking about UNFORGIVEN. So much for my good writing (LOL).

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  8. ClassicBecky says:

    LOL John! Nah, doesn’t mean a thing about your writing! I do it all the time, and heaven knows I’M a good writer (*clearing throat, blushing, eyes rolling*) — and humble, too!

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  9. Sam Juliano says:

    John: I agree this is hardly first-rank Eastwood, though the New York City locations bring back more than a few memories, and the film marks the first collaboration of Eastwood and Siegel. Again enjoyed your reference points to McGilligan, and much appreciatiate such a thorough and beautifully-written piece.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam, Well, it was the Siegel/Eastwood connection that was the attraction to watch this film again. Siegel rarely disappoints. He is a solid craftsman. Thanks again, Sam!

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