The Evolution of Eastwood: COOGAN’S BLUFF

COOGAN’S BLUFF (1968)

“You better drop that blade, or you won’t believe what happens next, even while it’s happening.” – Coogan

Work began on Coogan’s Bluff (the second of three Eastwood films released in 1968) even before Hang ‘Em High had been released. The original script had appealed to him and offered a welcome chance to move away from the westerns for which he was known without really moving away from them. Essentially, the film is a western in tone, style, and characterization, but set in 1960s New York City.

The plot involves a womanizing and reckless Chief Deputy from Arizona named Walt Coogan (Eastwood, of course) who is given orders to extradite a prisoner he’d previously captured from New York City. While in the city, he finds himself in conflict with the bureaucracy standing between him and his prisoner and a stubborn Chief of Police (played by Lee J. Cobb). He bypasses the process with lies and exaggerations to get his hands on his prisoner, but he is then tricked and ambushed and the prisoner escapes. What follows is a vigilante manhunt through the city, against the will of both the city police and his own chief back in Arizona, wherein Coogan attempts to bring his escaped convict to justice.

The film was a decent hit in 1968, so I was excited to see it (it’s the first one in this year-long challenge that was new to me). It is most notable for being the first partnership between Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel (who would go on to direct Eastwood four more times, most notably in Dirty Harry). Prior to their pairing for this film, neither of the two men had even heard of each other, but they worked well together and became good friends off-set as well.

As for this first outing for them, Coogan’s Bluff is very “of its time”, which isn’t entirely a compliment. The sensibilities of late-60s/early-70s cop thrillers aren’t terribly appealing to me and some of them border on distasteful, particularly in their treatment of women (of which Coogan’s Bluff has a handful of transgressions). The script is often painfully utilitarian, the direction is straightforward and pedestrian, and the general resolution feels too tidy given some of the narrative’s general complications. In short, it’s easy to see why contemporary audiences enjoyed it, but it doesn’t hold up very well.

What works about it is Eastwood’s steady – if unremarkable – performance, two genuinely thrilling action sequences (one of them a motorcycle chase and the other an out all brawl in a pool room), and an even, simplistic narrative. Unfortunately, these merits don’t quite elevate the material beyond the status of a Saturday afternoon cable matinee. It’s worth noting that the script was a matter of some frustration for Eastwood. He had originally been drawn to the simplicity of the original script, penned by Rawhide veterans Herman Miller and Jack Laird as a possible TV pilot. But upon hiring writers to make the script more cinematic (and watching it go through several unlikable drafts), Eastwood rejected any further rewrites in favor of going back to the original concept. Dean Reisner was finally hired and, with considerable input from Eastwood himself, a new script was finished. This overall experience would start a long-standing distaste in Eastwood’s work for extensive revisions to scripts.

I can’t speak to the quality of the scripts that didn’t make it to the screen, but the one we finally get isn’t very good. It isn’t surprising that it was originally conceived as a TV pilot (the overall production has a decisively small-screen feel), but the script has three major problems:

First, the character of Coogan isn’t very likable (or effective). His treatment of women seems inconsistent (he slaps a man for groping a woman without permission, but frequently makes unwanted advances himself and even roughs up a woman late in the film to obtain information). It’s also his own impatience which causes the primary problem in the first place. His “bluff” subverts due process and enables the prisoner to escape. It’s difficult to root for a hero so fundamentally impetuous and arrogant. Eastwood plays Coogan with an appropriate blend of machismo confidence and gruff rebellion. It’s a steady and assured performance, but ultimately unremarkable and made even less so by how unlikable the character is.

Second, the film’s treatment of women is – at times – painfully offensive. In the character of Julie Roth (played by Susan Clark), the film seems to be attempting to present an independent and self-sufficient working woman, but her inevitable swooning over Coogan and her passivity towards moments of objectification are troubling at best and offensive at worse. All other female characters are reduced to objects of either Coogan’s affections or the villain’s (including the one Coogan eventually starts tossing around a room). It may not be uncommon given the times in which the film was made, but it’s uncomfortable and potentially upsetting to current sensibilities.

Lastly, the stakes in the script are simply too small. The reason for Coogan’s inability to extradite the prisoner is described in only the broadest of terms (which might support the character’s reason for bypassing it entirely). But even after Coogan’s “bluff” to get his hands on the prisoner lands him in deep trouble with both the local and his own direct authorities, his continued vigilante tactics are eventually dismissed with impunity simply because they are ultimately successful (yes, I know I just spoiled the ending of the film, but with a film like this you’ll already see the ending coming from an hour away).

Coogan’s Bluff is, in many ways, a very natural next step in Eastwood’s filmography. Coogan wears a cowboy hat (and is often referred to as “cowboy” by other characters). He carries himself very much the way Jed Cooper from Hang ‘Em High carried himself, with simple drives and simple goals. He’s the same basic character we’ve already come to know him as playing, just in the city instead of the west. Fans of this genre’s period will likely find this to be a perfectly acceptable entry, if not an impressive one. But for the casual film viewer, Coogan’s Bluff is little more than mild, diversionary fare.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.

The Evolution of Eastwood: HANG ‘EM HIGH

HANG ‘EM HIGH (1968)

“All right, now that makes three mistakes we’ve made. The money, we hung an innocent man, and we didn’t finish the job.” – Captain Wilson

Clint Eastwood spent three years in the 1960s filming the “man with no name” trilogy under the direction of Sergio Leone, then another two years after that recording his dialogue for the English language releases. The whole process left him frustrated and stalled, but it also made him an almost immediate superstar. Following the consecutive American releases of the Leone films (which all hit the states in 1967), Eastwood would release no less than three films in the following year.

Amidst the release of the Leone trilogy, Eastwood was given two scripts almost simultaneously. One was a larger scale western adventure starring Gregory Peck called Mackenna’s Gold. The other was a lower-scale revenge piece (also a western) called Hang ‘Em High. Eastwood preferred the latter script, and even launched his own production studio to see it made. Sergio Leone was approached to direct, but he was already deep into production of Once Upon a Time in the West (with which he finally got the chance to work with Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson). So Eastwood called on an old friend of his, Ted Post, who had directed him in more than 20 episodes of Rawhide.

Hang ‘Em High begins when Jed Cooper (Eastwood) is taking a newly purchased herd of cattle across the plains. He is suddenly accosted by a posse of nine bloodthirsty vigilantes who, mistaking Cooper for a murderous cattle rustler, lynch him without trial on the basis of flimsy circumstantial evidence. Unfortunately for them, they do a sloppy job of it and Cooper survives. Later deputized as a US Marshal, Cooper sets out on a legally sanctioned quest to bring his nine assailants to justice.

For the majority of its runtime, the film treats its elements very directly. The narrative, the conflict, and the character’s motivations and morals are all very simple, almost superficial. Adding some thematic flavor to the whole piece is a hanging-hungry town judge (played by Pat Hingle) and a beautiful owner of the local general store (played by Inger Stevens). While these two characters influence the plot in ways you’d easily predict, each of them also hides a painful darkness that provides some unexpected momentary thematic exploration. For example, Judge Fenton is so protective of the ideal of just punishment that he is willing to hang two younger boys caught up over the heads in associative crime than provide them the opportunity for rehabilitation (a decision that puts him in direct odds with Cooper). Likewise, Rachel Warren (the store owner), who is openly benevolent and sympathetic to hanging victims, is secretly waiting for the opportunity to watch the man who assaulted her years earlier hang for it.

Eastwood’s acting is solid, of course, but there is a bluntness to his performance that feels almost amateurish at times. After three straight films under a decidedly different visionary director than his Rawhide days, working under a Rawhide veteran for this film may have reverted some comfortable habits. The mystique of the “man with no name” is replaced by an only slightly modified version of the heroic “white hat” character that Eastwood had taken on the Leone roles to flex away from in the first place. Perhaps Eastwood saw this film as a blend of comfort and challenge, by playing a more familiar and safer role to which he was more accustomed but obtaining more creative control by sending the film through his newly formed production studio.

But this is not to say that Hang ‘Em High is by any means a low-quality film. It’s skillfully structured, has a frequently gripping and suspenseful script, and features a collection of high-caliber performers (including Ed Begley, Bruce Dern, and a cameo appearance by the then-unknown Dennis Hopper). If you pay attention, you’ll locate Jonathan Goldsmith – the “most interesting man alive” from the Dos Equis commercials – as one of the nine vigilantes. It definitely lacks the flourish and grandeur of the spaghetti westerns, but still serves up an entertaining, well-told story.

Hang ‘Em High does not by any means reinvent the western wheel (and rabid fans of the Leone trilogy may not immediately acclimate to the more blunt, direct tone of its style), but it is a solidly entertaining western classic well worth the time of even a moderate fan of the genre.


Reed Lackey is based in Los Angeles, where he writes and podcasts about film and faith. His primary work is featured on the More Than One Lesson website and podcast, as well as his primary podcast, The Fear of God (which examines the intersection between Christianity and the horror genre). Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook to receive updates on his reviews and editorials.