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Wayside Cinema: Coogan’s Bluff

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I guess you could call Coogan's Bluff a revamped cowboy movie. The setting may have been updated from Dodge's dusty streets to the asphalt jungle of New York City, but in terms of theme and style, the song remains the same. The film hearkens to a time when justice was simple, when bad guys were bad guys and needed to be caught, without miles upon miles of bureaucratic red tape involved. Of course, it's as true today as it was in 1968 that things don't run so simply, but it's in showing what happens when these two worlds collide that Coogan's Bluff transcends being a standard cop thriller.

The ever-grizzled Clint Eastwood plays Wyatt Coogan, an Arizona deputy sheriff who likes doing things his own way. In his eyes, the crooks he wrangles deserve no mercy at all, having given up their rights the moment they committed their crimes. But this brash attitude has frequently put Coogan at odds with his superiors, so it's no surprise that they jump at the chance to get the guy out of their hair for a while. Coogan is sent to the Big Apple to pick up a prisoner named James Ringerman (Don Stroud) and escort him back to Arizona. The seasoned cop finds this easier said than done — Ringerman's release gets delayed due to a nasty LSD trip. He eventually talks his way into getting the perp into his custody, but when Ringerman makes a run for it, Coogan finds himself a stranger in a strange land, having to play by the city's rules as he hunts down his elusive prey.

Coogan's Bluff was made just a couple years after Eastwood made his cinematic splash in Sergio Leone's legendary westerns. Audiences knew him best as the Man with No Name, so it's understandable that he retain a few aspects of that character for his first modernized leading role. But in doing so, Eastwood, under the guiding hands of director Don Siegel, brought about a contrast between the Old West's ways and how the law is enforced today. Needless to say, Coogan is a man of basic means, viewing New York's tangled legal system more as a hindrance than an aide.

Coogan's Bluff mines this thematic territory rather well, sidestepping the usual trappings that come with a fish-out-of-water premise. A lesser film would've taken the story and concentrated on what hijinks ensue when you plunk someone with a cowboy mentality in the big city. Siegel does this to an extent (including how virtually every character assumes Coogan is from Texas), but it's in a much more wry and sardonic fashion than you might expect. Whatever comedy that does emerge is part of Siegel's way of dealing viewers a smart character study in the guise of a typical Eastwood vehicle.

But what most helps Coogan's Bluff is that its titular hero isn't played for a complete saint. For the most part, Coogan has the upper hand, as opposed to New York cops like Lee J. Cobb's character, who couldn't be more detached from their jobs. But there arise a few occasions on which Coogan's gung-ho approach gets him into hot water, thereby creating suspense as we watch him wriggle his way out again. Viewers are left with an unexpectedly well-rounded action hero, and Eastwood ends up executing a complex performance with equal parts subtlety and caustic coolness.

On the other hand, those expecting Coogan's Bluff to be a rock 'em, sock 'em thrill ride will be left disappointed. The hunt for Ringerman doesn't kick in until the film's half over, at which point Siegel is almost unwilling to give in to a less cerebral action flick mentality. While the film does get the job done, it does get a lot less interesting the more it goes on. The third act in particular is sort of weak, punctuated by a couple of dull chase scenes and a random detour into the land of psychedelia. Also confusing is Coogan's James Bondian ability to make women swoon over him, which doesn't mesh that well with his stoic demeanor.

Coogan's Bluff isn't one of Eastwood's best, but it is a solid picture nonetheless. If anything, it deserves credit for helping shape Eastwood into the timeless tough guy he remains today, not to mention testing his acting talents in an engaging manner. As far as cop tales go, not many get more hard-boiled than Coogan's Bluff.

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