Eastwood: Coogan’s Bluff

Clint Eastwood is the strong, silent type. At least he is in Coogan’s Bluff, the east-Coast Western which takes The Man With No Name from the dust bowl of Deep South America, updates him to the 1960s and plants him in central New York. Clint (yeah, we’re on first name terms) is Deputy Sheriff Coogan, a man who can make juddering through the desert in a battered 4×4 look menacing.

It’s a telling little detail that the first words to be spoken in this film don’t come until five and a half minutes of footage which could easily be mistaken for a documentary about Neolithic hunting practices, but what is actually the criminal of the film making himself scarce in the Arizona desert. “Put your pants on, chief” is all it takes for Clint to let us know everything about this hard as nails character whose adventures we will so attentively follow over the next couple of hours.

Coogan’s Bluff is pretty much your basic ‘Town Mouse/Country Mouse’ story. When Coogan is sent to New York City to collect a convict on the run he learns all too soon that those hardened city folk aren’t too impressed by a sheriff’s license and a cowboy hat. The people of New York can all but smell that Coogan is an outsider and take any opportunity to deride him for it; the first taxi driver he comes across is quick to ask if “everybody wears those clothes in Arizona?” Sitting in the back seat with a beige suit and old-west hat, Coogan doesn’t hesitate to give a little of his country attitude back and quips “no. Lifeguards wear swim trunks, nurses wear white dresses. What do they wear hear?” Yeah that shut him up alright!

On arriving at the police station it becomes all too clear that a fish out of water hasn’t got a patch on the amount Coogan stands out from this surly, jaded city crowd. Folks just can’t seem to get it into their heads that the Deep South extends out of Texas, and for Arizona-and-proud Coogan his mistaken identity is only the beginning of his troubles. Things take a fleeting turn for the better when in struts the pretty and perfectly prim probation officer Julie – well, until she opens her mouth anyway. It soon becomes all too clear that this is going to be less lovebirds and more taming of the shrew as she spurns Coogan from ‘hello’. Poor old Clint. It’s beginning to look as though the city really ain’t big enough for li’l old Coogan after all.

Coogan’s Bluff was Eastwood’s first main feature to appear on screens after the lauded Dollars Trilogy, and has often been hailed as ‘The Eastern Western’ and a pre-cursor to Dirty Harry, both comparisons definitely holding up in the face of this mean, takes-no-shit character. As an intermediary film between these two classics it is somewhat stunted in some areas (no, not those areas) and far from its barely-there story line and caricatured characters, its main highlights are standalone moments and throwaway quips: Coogan is pestered by a cheap hooker in his hotel room – he kicks her up the bum (literally) and throws her into the corridor before being called a “Texas faggot”. Julie mentions she only handles young, single women – “Yeah, me too” he replies before inching closer. On practically harassing the convict’s mother, she exclaims “You think you can come in here and write down a name and put on that fancy hat and just go? You know what you are?” the answer of course, being “Fancy.”

Coogan’s impatience with the city is the film’s best attribute and is the major driving force behind all of the events which take place. He can’t be dealing with a place where bureaucracy holds such prestige and it’s not before long that he goes off on a limb and decides to get things down the Arizona way, naturally causing more trouble than he prevents and getting a good beating in the progress at the hands of the convict’s ‘hippy-chick’ (or not) girlfriend. Her actions insight perhaps one of the more controversial scenes of the film: at his wits end, he takes matters into his own hands and beats her into spilling the beans on the location of her low-life-lover. This film certainly won’t win any Feminisms Awards but I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a part of me which was rooting him on.

In the pursuit of his convict, Coogan manages to soak in some of the sights of 1960s New York, with some saying this is the film’s best feature and others saying it dates it beyond belief. Dated like Jane Eyre and Braveheart are dated (*Sigh*). Setting a film anywhere in the ‘60s is automatically stamping it with a very definite context which you can’t get away from no matter how hard you try, unless your art department haven’t done their research so I have no problem with Coogan’s visit to a psychedelic nightclub (where large screens are playing Tarantula, a film Eastwood appeared in earlier in his career) or the twangy guitar soundtrack or the Mary Quant get-up. If anything, the overt progressiveness of the 1960s only serves to accentuate the conflicting brands of conservatism displayed by Coogan and the NYPD.

Disappointingly the ending of the film does let it down considerably. Coogan finally catches up with the convict and chases him on motorbike through a conveniently deserted park, but the motorbikes are barely more than pizza-boy scooters and the pace of the scene is slooooooooooowwwwww. Bizarrely there is no accompanying score to this scene, and whilst I can appreciate this may be intended to heighten the realism of the action and to keep it within reasonable levels of exaggeration (the length of the chase is somewhat unlikely given the setting in a public park), primarily it just detracts from any sense of tension we might have gleaned from it. The irritating whhurrrring of the motorbike engines reminds me more of a pesky fly than The Italian Job so it’s all a bit of a downer really. I’m happy for Coogan when he catches the crook, and even more happy for him that he did it by his own rules but I can’t help but feel like there is a lot of unfulfilled potential for the closing chapter of this film.

One final thing which bothers me about Coogan’s Bluff is its lack of bluffing. Coogan doesn’t even know the meaning of the word bluff! From the onset he swans about the place with such self-importance and reassuring smugness that you can sense him coming a mile off. His approach is much less Coogan’s Bluff and much more Coogan the Barbarian but I’m just pleased that forty years down the line his character is strong enough to stand tall awash a sea of cop thrillers and Bruce Willis films.

Dani Singer

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