Monday, September 15, 2008

Film #78: Coogan's Bluff

1968's Coogan's Bluff, whether you've heard of it or not, is a deceptively historic movie. It brought Clint Eastwood out of the western milieu he'd been so well-known for through his TV series Rawhide and his Spaghetti Western cycle with Italian director Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good The Bad & The Ugly), and into the streets of U.S. cities like New York (Coogan's Bluff), San Francisco (the Dirty Harry cycle), Phoenix (The Gauntlet), and New Orleans (Tightrope).
And it brought director Don Siegel back to the forefront of American directors (that is, after the French film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema had already vetted him in the 1960s). TV director Alex Segal (Playhouse 90) was first at the helm of Coogan's Bluff, but later producer Jennings Lang (who went on to help out with Eastwood's High Plains Drifter and Play Misty For Me, as well as with disaster epics like Airport '75, Earthquake, and Rollercoaster) felt a quicker, more no-nonsense director was needed for the project. Fortunately, the great director Don Siegel was under contract to Lang's company, Universal, and thus a lucrative collaboration between Eastwood and Siegel was afoot--a collaboration that would lead Eastwood to dedicate his 1992 Oscar winner Unforgiven to both Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

If one reads about Eastwood's and Siegel's directorial senses, one would find that they are quite similar: as Eastwood biographer Richard Schickel puts it "[Siegel] was Clint's kind of guy: a decisive filmmaker who didn't waste time, words, or film on the set." Any examination of any actor's experiences with the director Eastwood--Morgan Freeman, Hillary Swank, Charlie Sheen, Kevin Spacey, and the casts of Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, High Plains Drifter, White Hunter Black Heart, Bird, Play Misty For Me, Breezy, or Mystic River (and those are all huge casts)--will turn up commentaries about Eastwood's fair, effective, but no-nonsense, one- or two-take approach to filmmaking (his films are legendary in Hollywood for coming in under- or on-schedule and under- or on-budget).

Even before they met, Eastwood and Siegel needed each other. Eastwood required Siegel's know-how. But Siegel hungered for the power of Eastwood's fame and name. We should remember: in 1956, Siegel completed the classic sci-fi/sociological study Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which has, as of 2008, been remade three times: as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 78), Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 93) and The Invasion (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 07).

This HAS to be a record over the course of 50 years. Name me one movie that has been remade almost every decade since the original has hit the screens. Believe me, you can't. Obviously the original Siegel-directed Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an influential movie. But after Siegel made that movie, he was offered NOTHING. This is clearly a political response to Siegel's incendiary, left-leaning work about the negatives of unconsidered conformism in the light of the Cold War Communist scare. But, regardless of his ever-so-slight blackballing, Siegel kept going, through B-movies and TV-films (including 1964's originally TV-bound remake of 1946's The Killers, staring Lee Marvin, Angie Dickinson, and Ronald Reagan--in his last role, as a villain).

When it came time for Coogan's Bluff to be made, producer Lang had obviously hit on something perfect. As a result of Lang's suggestion, Eastwood watched some of Siegel's 1950s films and liked them. He'd also heard (from actor/director Mark Rydell, of On Golden Pond and The Cowboys fame) that Siegel was a director who could get things done in a hurry. Siegel, meanwhile, watched and loved Eastwood's Italian films done with Leone. In 1967, the two men met in Carmel, California (the same town that of which Eastwood would eventually become mayor in 1986). According to Siegel, they discussed "dames, golf, dames, the glorious weather" and then, once Siegel was called quickly back to Hollywood, the team quietly decided that they could certainly work together, and all of this happened without the two having discussed very much about their first film together.

When all was said and done, Coogan's Bluff turned out to be an entertaining fish-out-of-water actioner that had Clint playing a horse-ridin', cowboy-hat-wearin' Arizona cop who storms New York City in pursuit of an on-the-lam bad-guy headcase played by Don Stroud (who later reteamed with Eastwood in 1971's Joe Kidd) Co-star Lee J. Cobb (12 Angry Men, The Exorcist and Death of a Salesman's original Willy Loman, on Broadway and on film) was his usual grumpy self as the NYC detective whose work habits clash with Coogan's rough, no-Miranda-rights method of law enforcement.

A suitable precursor to Eastwood's more violent later work with Siegel (including Two Mules for Sister Sara, The Beguiled, Dirty Harry, and Escape from Alcatraz), Coogan's Bluff was later shamelessly ripped off by the creators of NBC's Emmy-winning hit TV series McCloud, starring Dennis Weaver in the acclaimed lead role. The TV series failed to even credit Herman Miller, the writer of the original novel and screenplay to Coogan's Bluff. Still, to this day, this is inexplicable and unforgivable, as anyone who see both the movie and the TV series can easily attest.

An appreciator of Coogan's Bluff--mind you, an incredibly engrossing movie--cannot forget the contribution of Don Stroud. As a result of his outstanding performance as Eastwood's nemesis, Stroud later became the star of Roger Corman's Bloody Mama and Von Richthofen and Brown (AKA The Red Baron), and of cult classics Live a Little, Steal a Lot, The Buddy Holly Story, and The Amityville Horror, as well as scads of special appearances on an amazing lineup of TV shows (including McMillan and Wife, Adam-12, Ironside, The FBI, Gunsmoke, Police Woman, Hawaii-Five-O, Charlie's Angels, CHIPs, Knots Landing, Fantasy Island, The A-Team, McGuyver, and Babylon 5). In Coogan's Bluff, he invests his slimy character with a strangely appealing blend of malice and hippy-dippyness (some of which date the movie considerably). I have to note here that my mother, Lynn--an avid drive-in movie buff--has always had a thing for Stroud, who sported blond-haired good looks while also delivering wild-eyed villainous performances (which typecast him throughout his career). I've always thought her love for Stroud was strange, but, hey, there it is!

I conclude my examination of the deceptively low-key Coogan's Bluff by mentioning its jazzy score by Lalo Schifrin (Bullitt, Mission Impossible, Dirty Harry, Cool Hand Luke, and many TV show themes), some of which comes into play during a scene set at a wild-assed 1968 NYC hippy club humorously deemed "The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel." If someone was smart, they'd open a club with that incredible moniker. (Actually, I now think there is one located in Dublin, Ireland, but where is its NYC counterpart?)
Coogan's Bluff may not be a must-see, as must-sees go. But it's a movie you will not, I guarantee you, mind seeing at all, my friend.

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