Coogan's Bluff (1968)

By the late 1960s Clint Eastwood had become a bona fide film star. But he was still specifically a western star - that guy from Rawhide and A Fistful of Dollars. Dirty Harry, an orangutan called Clyde and success as an Oscar-winning director were all in the future.

Having become a star in Italian-made westerns, Eastwood was lured back to Hollywood for another cowboy film Hang 'Em High in 1967. The year after that he branched out, making a rare war film Where Eagles Dare, playing second fiddle to Richard Burton, and a crime thriller Coogan's Bluff

Coogan's Bluff can be seen as a transitional film in Clint Eastwood's career, transferring his early western stardom into the crime film genre. It casts him as a laconic Deputy Sheriff from Arizona, who is usually referred to in the film by just his surname, Coogan. When asked his first name, he typically replies: "How about just Coogan?"

Coogan is sent to New York City to bring back to Arizona a suspect, James Ringerman (Don Stroud), who has absconded. When he gets to New York, Coogan has to deal with the strange ways of the big city, including attempts by cab drivers and hotel staff to fleece him and everyone's assumption that he must be from Texas, since he wears a cowboy hat and boots.

Stuck in the city, Coogan gets impatient when he discovers that his suspect is not yet ready for him to take back to Arizona. His man is currently being held in a secure hospital due to an LSD overdose. Rather than take in the sights of New York, as everyone suggests, Coogan decides to bluff his way into the hospital and take the suspect out on the next Pan Am flight.

Unfortunately, while his initial bluff works, the plan goes wrong when he is jumped at the airport by the criminal's associates and knocked out. His suspect disappears and Coogan is ordered back to Arizona in disgrace. But, like a good Mountie, Coogan always gets his man. And he's not going to let a little thing like having no jurisdiction or legal powers in New York get in his way.

It was Clint Eastwood's good fortune that the initially unpromising-sounding spaghetti westerns he made for Sergio Leone in the mid-1960s - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - became unexpectedly successful at the US box office. But it was his bad luck to become a big western star at a time when the western was about to run out of steam as a popular genre.

Although Eastwood would find success with occasional oaters in the 1970s and '80s, by that time westerns were a dying breed. To sustain and develop his new position as a box office draw, he needed to move away from horse operas and expand into new territory. 

So Coogan's Bluff is a significant film for Eastwood and one that paved the way for his more familiar Dirty Harry series. The film arrived in 1968, at a time when maverick cops were definitely becoming a thing, with Bullitt and Madigan also released the same year.

Uncertainty about Eastwood's position in this unfamiliar genre is signalled by his character being made an Arizona lawman, seen in the film as a kind of modern day cowboy or western sheriff. He even turns up in New York wearing his cowboy boots and hat. In fact, this almost looks like an in-joke, as in same hat, different genre.

Coogan's Bluff is filmed in a typically terse and spare style by Don Siegel, who would work regularly with Clint Eastwood over the next decade. Siegel replaced television director Alex Segal, when the latter fell ill. Siegel joked at the time that he was chosen because his name was an amalgam of the other two contenders for the job (Alex Segal and Don Taylor).

The script, by Herman Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, from a story by Miller, went through multiple versions (eight, reportedly) before the star was satisfied with it. It's not immediately obvious what the problem was, as Coogan's Bluff is quite simple and straightforward in its plotting and characterisations. Presumably, it was his own role that Eastwood was dissatisfied with. 

The script for Coogan's Bluff has more humour than you would find in a typical Dirty Harry film, with the comedy playing on culture clash conventions. The rube in the big city is a familiar trope, especially in New York, which has played host to various screen characters from Tarzan to Crocodile Dundee.

The humour is reasonably subtle though, despite the running joke that everyone thinks that Coogan is from Texas because of his cowboy gear. By the time a hooker accuses the uninterested Coogan of being a "Texas faggot", Eastwood's wry expression is enough to get a laugh on its own.

Coogan finds the big city a place where everyone is trying to take advantage of him, assuming he's a simple hick from out of town. The cab driver wants to charge extra, because he's carrying a small briefcase and it counts as luggage. When he gets to his hotel, he finds it wants to charge him extra for having no luggage, since a briefcase now conveniently doesn't count.

Since Eastwood is the star, he's never at the mercy of the New Yorkers and is in fact at least as sharp as they are. After a suspiciously long cab ride, Coogan asks the driver how many stores there are in New York called Bloomingdales. Well, there's just the one, the driver says. Why? "We passed it twice."

In his dingy hotel, the porter tells him there's an attractive woman in the next room who's just been stood up. It could be your lucky night, cowboy. As expected, the "single woman" arrives at his room, but Coogan is nobody's fool and knows that she is a prostitute. He also doesn't take long to realise that she's swiped his wallet during their brief conversation.

Plotwise Coogan's Bluff is a bit thin. Although the NYPD is looking for Ringerman, Coogan tracks him down quite easily by going to see Ringerman's blowzy mother Ellen (Betty Field), who is no help, and then getting his dippy hippy girlfriend (Tisha Sterling) to take him to where he's hiding out. It's not exactly a mystery that would baffle Sherlock Holmes.

Conveniently, Coogan is romancing a woman he meets at the police station who also happens to be Ringerman's probation officer. Fortunately, Julie (Susan Clark) even has a filing cabinet full of her clients' personal files in her home. Which seems unlikely, but it does enable Coogan to snaffle the girl's address.

Otherwise, Julie's romance with Coogan is a little bit perfunctory. Her reappearance in the film's final reel, without even any dialogue, looks like a last minute addition, when someone decided that she really ought to see Coogan off when he leaves the city on the helicopter.

Eastwood's Coogan is presented as not only a maverick, but a man who seems almost irresistible to women - and he takes full advantage of that fact, as had become de rigueur in the late 1960s. Coogan is first seen back home in Arizona tracking down a fugitive, before leaving him handcuffed in his jeep outside, while he enjoys some R&R with a young woman in her house, while her husband or partner is away. 

He also pursues Ringerman's suspiciously glammed up probation officer, after running into her at the police station, and even finds time to sleep with Ringerman's girlfriend - although maybe he would protest that that one was all in the line of duty.

Coogan's Bluff's culture clash is multifaceted. It not only deals with the contrast between Coogan and his surroundings, but more broadly between urban and rural, East coast and West, male and female, younger and older, and rule-breaking and law abiding.

Coogan's search for Ringerman takes him to the memorably named "Pigeon Toed Orange Peel", a club full of people dancing and getting stoned while watching men paint free love slogans onto naked women. The nudes in the club, both actual and figurative, are enthusiastically captured by Siegel and his cinematographer Bud Thackeray.

The "free love" background of the late 1960s dates the film quite precisely. It also allows Siegel to indulge in some playful counterpointing, as when Coogan roughs up a female suspect in a room emblazoned with the word LOVE written on the wall behind them in giant lettering.

Coogan's irresistibility to women is probably partly designed to counteract the danger that, as a lawman among all these free love hippies, he could come across as a bit of a square. So his character embodies both counter-cultural and traditional elements, like Dirty Harry and the other maverick cops of this time. He disdains authority and following the rules or proper procedure, while of course representing and manifesting those very rules. He is insubordinate to his Sheriff and seems to be urging him to fire him at one point, his line about removing his Deputy's badge an unintentional foreshadowing of the final scene in Dirty Harry.

Coogan also takes advantage of the more sexually liberated era of the 1960s, availing himself of the opportunity to sleep with other men's women. But he's also obviously someone who is there to uphold the law, as Coogan always gets his man. He also defends Julie from a groper in the police station, despite her protestations that she doesn't need his help. The groper is full of himself, until he gets a slap from Coogan, and runs off whimpering, these big city softies being no match for a real man from out West.

Coogan's cowboy hat and boots quite neatly signify his dual status as both a rule breaker and a law enforcer, a maverick and a traditionalist. They are of course very traditional garb, but wearing them in New York is almost an act of rebellion in itself, at least against expectations about what is appropriate clothing for an East coast city.

As locals may know, Coogan's Bluff is actually a New York location, a hill that runs down to the Harlem River. The film's title then has a double meaning, referring to the place as well as to Coogan's plan to grab his prisoner from the hospital in the film. There is apparently a reference to the name of the location in the original version of the film, but this has been trimmed from more recent releases.

Coogan's Bluff looks like it was relatively economically made, perhaps because Universal still weren't sure how much of a star Clint Eastwood was outside the western genre. A lot of the film was evidently shot in the studio, with the settings being mostly a parade of dingy apartments and hotels, police stations and hospitals. Some of the exteriors, particularly the night scenes later in the film, look as if they were shot on the studio backlot.

As a result, Coogan's Bluff doesn't capture as strong a sense of New York City in the late sixties as it might have. The most distinctive location is the Cloisters, a Manhattan art museum built in a faux Medieval style. The museum's grounds feature twice, the second time as the setting for a motorbike chase that constitutes one of the film's action highlights. The film's opening scenes were filmed not in Arizona, but in the Mojave desert in California.

The film was controversial at the time, particularly for its sex and nudity, as well as for its sometimes amoral hero. The film was given the "C" (for "Condemned") rating by the National Catholic Office of Motion Pictures in the US, but that doesn't seem to have harmed its box office prospects. Although now overshadowed by Eastwood's later films, the film was a substantial hit at the time. Herman Miller's original story also spawned the TV series McCloud, that ran from 1970 to 1977, and starred Dennis Weaver as Sam McCloud, a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico on loan to the NYPD. 

Coogan's Bluff marked the beginning of a profitable relationship between Eastwood and his director Don Siegel. The pair made a further four films together, Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Dirty Harry (1971), The Beguiled (1971) and Escape from Alcatraz (1979). Siegel was also an acknowledged influence on Eastwood's own directorial style when he began working behind the camera. He even played a supporting role in Eastwood's directorial debut Play Misty for Me in 1971.

Coogan's Bluff is an efficient thriller with a thin plot, but a wry sense of humour, and it offers an obvious dry run for Eastwood's more enduring Dirty Harry character. Although clearly a lesser outing than that film, Coogan's Bluff is entertaining on its own level, and as an effort to expand the star's range and move him into new genres it must be counted as a success.

Coogan's Bluff

Year: 1968
Genre: Crime Thriller
Country: USA
Director: Don Siegel

Cast  Clint Eastwood (Coogan), Susan Clark (Julie), Tisha Sterling (Linny Raven), Don Stroud (James Ringerman), Lee J. Cobb (Lieutenant McElroy), Betty Field (Ellen Ringerman), Tom Tully (Sheriff McCrea), Melodie Johnson (Millie), James Edwards (Sergeant Jackson), Rudy Diaz (Running Bear), David Doyle (Pushie), Louis Zorich (Taxi driver), Meg Myles (Big Red), Marjorie Bennett (Mrs Fowler), Seymour Cassel (John, young hood), John Coe (Bellboy), Skip Battyn (Omega), Albert Popwell (Wonderful Digby), Conrad Bain (Madison Avenue man), James Gavin (Ferguson), Albert Henderson (Desk sergeant), James McCallion (Room clerk), Syl Lamont (Manager), Jess Osuna (Prison hospital guard), Jerry Summers (Good Eyes), Antonia Rey (Mrs Amador), Marya Henriques (Go-go dancer)

Screenplay Herman Miller, Dean Riesner and Howard Rodman, story Herman Miller  Producer Don Siegel  Cinematography Bud Thackery  Art directors Alexander Golitzen, Robert C. MacKichan  Editor Sam E. Waxman  Music Lalo Schifrin  Stunt coordinator Paul Baxley

Running time 93 mins  Colour Technicolor

Production Company Universal Pictures / Malpaso Company  Distributor Universal


  1. Ha, finally again a movie worthy of my regrettably low-brow tastes. I love Eastwood, I love Coogan's Bluff, I love all his movies. Unless he's in some whiny movie with Meryl Streep that's supposed to be romantic. Or in one with an orangutan. I'm trying to forget those ever happened.

    But back to Coogan. I never thought of it as lesser Eastwood as some people seem to do. I like these urban cowboy stories. They're always fish out of water stories and they usually work for me.

    I also like to see movies set in NY. I used to live there and it's always exiting to see films shot on location there, and to see how much the city has changed. Not always for the better.

    1. Do you think Coogan's Bluff is good as an NY film? There's some location stuff, but it doesn't have a strong feel of the city for outsiders, because they're not the most famous or recognisable locations. There's also all that stuff obviously filmed on the studio backlot back in Hollywood.

    2. It's true, they didn't go for the well-known landmark locations in Coogan's Bluff. Fort Tryon Park and the Cloisters are lesser known, but I used to go there in Summer quite a lot.

      From the 70s (a decade I usually am not very interested in), I really like Three Days of the Condor (1975) and my favorite 70s movie, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974).
      From the 90s, Men in Black is great and has good location shooting.

      There are really so many movies with good location shooting in NY, I just wished I liked the movies better. :)

    3. I really like Pelham 123. I remember that as having some sense of NY as well, despite a lot of it taking place underground. I think because of the characters and so on. Coogan's Bluff could be almost any big city in some ways, but maybe that's deliberate.


    4. I think why I like Pelham is less because of great NY locations - as you say, most of it is underground - but because Walter Matthau simply nails the character of Lt. Garber, who is such a New York archetype, if not to say stereotype, but in the best way.
      This movie manages to capture the spirit of New York like no other.

      It also really helped me appreciate Walter Matthau as a dramatic actor.

    5. Yes, it was his character in particular that I was thinking of. I also think that Matthau was underused as a dramatic actor, once people realised he was funny. His later years might have seen him play some interesting roles if he hadn't become so wedded to comedy.

  2. Excellent review! I re-watched it a couple of years ago, and I thought it was a surprisingly engaging action movie. Not one of Clint's best, but quite enjoyable.

    1. Yes, it's probably second tier Eastwood but still better than many. I would put it above most of the Dirty Harry sequels.


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