Eastwood report: Coogan’s Bluff

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It’s instructive, cinematically speaking, to watch Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry back to back. A star/producer and a director, working in consonance, on modern-day urban police thrillers, three years apart, and yet Dirty Harry still rivets the viewer’s attention while Coogan creaks and groans.

We could start anywhere, but let’s start with production design: the sets for Dirty Harry are either genuine locations or else meticulously-realized sets, drab and grungy, whereas the sets for Coogan’s Bluff are over-sized and colorful, and grungy only in a Technicolor, stagy way. Apart from a few New York locations, like The Cloisters and the roof of the Pan Am building, the sets are obviously sets, roomy and colorful and designed to delight the eye, show off the film stock and move a camera around in. They reduce 1960s New York to a generic cartoon: bathrooms are the size of bedrooms, offices are the size of living rooms, living rooms are the size of apartments, blood looks like orange paint, all streets end in a T and warehouses have big signs that say "WAREHOUSE" over the door. Similarly, the lighting is high-key and flat to show off the actors’ faces, the opposite of the murky, inky lighting of Harry. The casting feels very square and "old Hollywood," a West-Coast guess at what one finds on the East Coast, a jokey pantomime of urban blight.

Then there’s the script, specifically the way it present’s Eastwood’s character. "Clint Eastwood" is always a man of action, an anti-social rule-breaker, suspicious of authority, who is good at his job but not a people person. He’s all those things in both Harry and Coogan, but Coogan feels like a part designed to flatter a movie star and Harry feels much more like a real guy. Maybe it’s the womanizing — Harry’s time is taken up by duty, he resorts to peeking in people’s windows to see naked women; but Coogan seems to have all kinds of time for snuggling up to babes. Whether he’s stopping off at home while transporting a fugitive, killing time while waiting for the gears of bueracracy to turn, investigating contacts or zeroing in on his prey, Coogan always finds time for snuggling with comely lasses. Sometimes the women throw themselves at him, sometimes he has to paw them into submission, but Coogan is ten times the swinger Harry is, and it makes him the less interesting character because of it. Harry must catch Scorpio, it’s the only thing he has in his life. Coogan, on the other hand, has plenty of action going on, he could just forget about his nemesis.

Which brings us to the subject of nemeses: Scorpio is an unhinged psychopath who holds a city hostage with his batshit schemes, while Coogan’s guy, this chap named Ringerman, is a generic criminal we know almost nothing about, except that he drives a motorcycle, drops acid and hangs out with hippies (and pool hustlers, oddly enough). Yes, this is the movie where Clint Eastwood confronts the Hippie Menace: one of the high points of the narrative is when Coogan visits a nightclub called, I am not making this up, the Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel, which features black-light decorations, topless trapeze acts and a psychedelic light show. (And its own theme song — take that, Limelight!) As Hippie Menaces go, the denizens of the Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel feels only slightly more dangerous than the Hippie Menace Elvis Presley battles in Easy Come, Easy Go.

The direction, by Don Siegel, is the most surprising thing — Coogan feels stagebound and clumsy, barely even a movie, much more like television, while Harry has a completely different directoral approach. It doesn’t even feel like the work of the same man, so complete is the transformation. It’s not just camera placement or lighting, it’s the approach to shooting, cutting and scene design, not to mention casting. Harry bristles with (relatively) subtle performances, while Coogan is broad and even silly.

All of this helps me to understand just how important and groundbreaking Bullitt was in 1967. It wasn’t just the car chase, it was everything — Frank Bullitt moves in the real world, and the movie takes its time to tell us about how he lives, where he sleeps, what he has for breakfast, whose company he keeps and what music he listens to before the inciting incident even happens along. It was Bullitt‘s approach to character, not its car chase, that made it fresh and exciting. Once you understood that Bullitt was a real guy, you were heavily invested when the gripping police stuff came along. Coogan, coming out a year later, must have felt especially old-fashioned, very square in comparison. Harry, coming along in the year of Bullitt‘s unofficial sequel The French Connection, seems to finally bring Eastwood into the New Hollywood.


12 Responses to “Eastwood report: Coogan’s Bluff”
  1. samedietc says:

    I’m interested in Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which I would probably place on the “real world” side of the “stage sets vs. real world” question. I’m curious if you would agree with that assessment, and if so, if you had any thoughts about Coogan’s Bluff‘s return to the stage sets.

    • samedietc says:

      Which is a long way of saying, I’m reading and enjoying all these Eastwood reviews, but haven’t seen many of these movies (or haven’t seen them recently), so haven’t been commenting. I don’t want to thread-hijack this away from Coogan’s Bluff–or at least, not too fast.

    • Todd says:

      It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Body Snatchers and I’m not a Siegel expert, but Dirty Harry seems to indicate a real turning point for him. Even Escape From Alcatraz isn’t as cinematically adventurous.

      • craigjclark says:

        I was actually going to ask you what you thought of Alcatraz. Personally, I think Patrick McGoohan’s performance as the warden is the best thing about it, but that’s frequently the case with McGoohan.

        • Todd says:

          Alcatraz blew me away when I saw it in the theater — I was relatively young at the time (17) and it felt like something vital and new at the time. Then I watched it a few years ago and it didn’t feel anywhere near as tense and suspenseful as before and I couldn’t really tell you why, since it was obviously the exact same movie.

          • craigjclark says:

            Another Siegel film you might want to check out (which he made after Dirty Harry) is Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau as a small-time crook who accidentally winds up with a stash of mob money and has to figure out how to give it back without getting himself killed.

  2. black13 says:

    I always felt that Coogan was the transition from Eastwood’s Wild West Character to his contemporary incarnation. Here was the Man Without a Name (“Ray” in the script, according to the commentary on the DVD), transplanted to the present, overwhelmed with culture shock and reveling in the modern liberties. But a part of him wanted to fight crime and shoot bad guys. Because of the culture shock, he was simply confused as to who those bad guys are.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed Lee J Cobb’s perfomance, and the diologe with the cabie most of all. so is a brifcase luggage or not ?

  4. Anonymous says:

    Could you advice me some interisting movies in such genre?