Coogan’s Bluff

Posted on October 10th, 2010 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, Don Siegel by Colin

Poster

As the 60s were drawing to a close the western (at least the traditional variety) was a genre in decline. By the mid-70s it had been more or less supplanted by the hard-nosed urban cop movie. At first glance you might think there’s little common ground, but scratch the surface a little and the similarities are there - men operating alone with their own brand of personal integrity, a hostile and lawless environment, a society that is simultaneously repelled by and in desperate need of the services of those accustomed to violence. Strip away the time and place and those themes could be applied to any number of westerns and 70s cop films. Coogan’s Bluff (1968) can be viewed as a bridge between these two genres, not least because of the presence of Clint Eastwood.

Coogan (Eastwood) is an Arizona deputy who we first see running down a fugitive from a Navajo reservation. This opening establishes not only that he’s a capable and ruthless hunter of men, but he’s also master of his harsh desert environment. A temporary slip on his part lands him in hot water with his superiors and he’s dispatched to New York to complete the seemingly mundane task of escorting an extradited prisoner back home. The thing is though that Coogan is very much a man of then west, and he’s plunged into a world that’s entirely alien to him. When he gets his hands on his prey he allows himself to be duped into a situation that leaves him hospitalized, and without either the prisoner or his gun. His pride refuses to let him take this lying down, and there follows a relentless man hunt through the city’s mean streets. Along the way, Coogan clashes with the local police in the person of Lt. McElroy (Lee J Cobb), and encounters an assortment of hippies, junkies, freaks and low-lifes that are as dangerous as they are strange. Coogan’s the product of a hard place, but the grimy streets he finds himself roaming are every bit as lethal as his desert home. While the scenes of our hero pursuing his quarry through the night spots of the counter-culture offer up a snapshot of the hedonistic late-60s, they also date the film quite badly. Those paisley-shirted kids passing round the spliff, talking in riddles, and chilling to Indian music in psychedelic apartments with beaded curtains seem as far away in time now as the west that Coogan is supposed to embody. In the end, of course, he gets his man, and there’s a nice little coda on the helicopter back home that suggests he may have learned something during his trip to the big city. Where he callously ground his cigarette into the dirt before the imploring eyes of the shackled fugitive at the beginning, he now seems to have learnt a little pity and offers a smoke to his latest prisoner.

The Man With No First Name - Clint Eastwood in Coogan's Bluff.

Eastwood’s Coogan is very much a halfway house between The Man With No Name and Harry Callaghan - in the early scenes the trademark squinting eyes are hidden behind black RayBans and a simple cigarette stands in for the cheroot. However, the western sensibility remains and has not yet been wholly replaced by the full scale urban brutality. Mind you, although he’s playing a fish out of water, there’s no wide eyed innocence about Coogan. Eastwood plays him as a man with quick wits who learns life’s lessons fast. He’s also no superman, taking two beatings in the course of his investigation - the second being particularly rough - yet has the requisite toughness to survive unarmed for the most part. While Eastwood almost always brings some of his dry humour to his roles he pretty much meets his match in Lee J Cobb. The veteran actor deadpans his way through the movie as the world weary cop who recognizes Coogan’s presence as just the source of another headache. Don Siegel’s direction is as lean and efficient as usual, capturing the seedy atmosphere of the inner city perfectly and handling the action scenes like the old pro he was - the pool hall fight being especially well done.

Universal’s UK DVD of Coogan’s Bluff is a very basic affair, with not one extra in sight. The transfer is anamorphic 1.78:1 but it’s a very grainy one, and I’m not usually given to griping too much on the grain issue. Still, it’s very much a budget release so I suppose we can’t expect too much. The film itself remains entertaining throughout, though it’s really only in the mid-range of both Eastwood’s and Siegel’s work. It was the first film the director and star made together, and they would both go on to better things individually and collaboratively. Generally, we’re looking at a good solid piece of filmmaking that acts as an interesting link between genres.

Where Eagles Dare

Posted on March 27th, 2008 in 1960s, Clint Eastwood, War, Richard Burton by Colin

Poster

There are some films that seem to have the ability to transport us back in time, and Where Eagles Dare is one of those; I only have to watch the first few minutes for it to work its magic. The alpine landscape appears, the blood red credits roll, Ron Goodwin’s pounding score swells up, and I’m once again that wide-eyed little boy sitting on my parents’ rug - spellbound. Back then, I felt sure that this was the greatest war film ever made - and I was becoming something of a connoisseur of the genre at the time. Now, as the years wear on, I know that Where Eagles Dare is not the greatest war film ever, but its ability to carry me back thirty years or more is a priceless quality that no amount of critical snobbery can ever diminish. 

Following on the success of The Guns of Navarone, the books of Alistair MacLean were seen as a source of cinematic gold just waiting to be mined. There wasn’t a lot of character development in these stories, but the twisty plots and non-stop action made up for that. Where Eagles Dare is about an Allied mission (headed up by Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood) behind enemy lines to rescue a captured American general from the Nazis before they can force him to reveal the details of the D-Day invasion. The difficulty for our heroes lies in the fact that the general is being held in the Schloss Adler, an almost impenetrable castle perched on a mountain top, and accessible only by cable car. As if this were not enough, it looks as though there is a traitor lurking among our intrepid group. To go deeper into the plot would require some massive spoilers, and I don’t want to do that here. Suffice to say that the film treats us to double cross piled onto double cross, lots of big spectacular explosions, huge numbers of Nazis mowed down by Burton and Eastwood, and a fantastic fight with an ice pick atop a moving cable car. By the end everything has been resolved satisfactorily and two and a half hours of escapist bliss have whizzed by.  

Clint Eastwood asking the whole German army if they feel lucky. 

There’s a great cast for this movie, even if they’re all playing roles which are basically caricatures. Richard Burton’s Major Smith seems capable of planning and talking his way out of even the most hopeless situations. Clint’s Lieutenant Schaffer is cool, ruthless and laconic; a WWII version of The Man With No Name. Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt look good while helping out the heroes and, crucially, they do not indulge in any girly histrionics - something which should never happen in a proper Boy’s Own adventure anyway. The support cast is also well stocked with Ferdy Mayne and Anton Diffring playing German officers (what else?). Derren Nesbitt is ideal as the suspicious Gestapo major, although his German accent wouldn’t stand up to too much analysis.

Where Eagles Dare has been out on DVD from Warner for ages. The anamorphic scope transfer is good enough and there’s a ‘Making of’ featurette on the disc. I don’t see this getting an upgrade any time soon since it’s probably seen as too lowbrow for the SE treatment. For me, it will always remain one of those links to an increasingly distant past - an innocent and adventurous world where Richard Burton will forever intone “Broadsword calling Danny Boy…..Broadsword calling Danny Boy”