Monday, May 31, 2010

Clint Eastwood: the icon at 80

This from IMDb:

Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood has banned his wife Dina from celebrating his 80th birthday, insisting he stopped marking the anniversary when he turned 70.

The ‘Dirty Harry’ star reaches the milestone on Monday but he is hoping for a quiet one because he doesn’t believe in being showered with gifts at such an advanced age.

He says, “Once you get in the 70s, several things happen. One is, you stop celebrating birthdays. I’ve forbidden my wife. I said, ‘Please, no birthday things’. I don’t need to pretend to open a gift and say, ‘This is just what I wanted.’ I said, ‘Don't get me anything. We'll just have a glass of wine’.”

Enjoy the drink, sir. A glass is being raised to you here at chez Agitation.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Outlaw Josey Wales

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 10 of 10 / Overall: 36 of 100

Sometimes I find myself casting about for an opening sentence for a review even as I’m watching the film. Part way through ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, the following took shape in my mind:

Clint Eastwood’s 1976 peacenik western starts with the title character, at this point still a regular guy tending a smallholding, witnessing the death of his family at the hands of Union soldiers who burn his house and leave him for dead –

At which point a mental cursor highlighted the whole thing and clicked on a ‘delete’ button. It was fundamentally flawed. The word “peacenik” just didn’t seem to have any business in a sentence that also included “the death of his family”, “burned his house” and “left him for dead”.

As ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ unfolds, a fair old catalogue of violence amasses: unarmed soldiers who have surrendered are mown down with a gatling gun; innumerable bounty hunters are ventilated as Wales hauls a hand-cannon so big you start to wonder if he’s actually Harry Callahan’s great-grandfather; a squaw is beaten with a hunk of wood and subjected to an attempted double-rape; a family travelling to new territory are set upon by Commancheroes, one of their number murdered and another subjected to an attempted rape (there is a scholarly paper that needs to be written on rape and attempted rape in the films of Clint Eastwood); two peaceable individuals are captured by Commanche Indians and buried up to their necks; and a group of homesteaders are forced to take up arms when Wales’s past catches up with him. Stick William Holden or James Coburn in the Eastwood role and you’d think you were watching a Peckinpah film (Matt Clarke, who memorably played J.W. Bell in ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ crops up in a supporting part).

And yet “peacenik” was the word I kept coming back to. Josey Wales – his unfailing accuracy with pistols and rifles notwithstanding – is perhaps the only character in an Eastwood western not to be a stone-cold anti-hero from the outset. He has none of the dark, mythic qualities of The Man With No Name in the Leone trilogy, The Stranger in ‘High Plains Drifter’ or The Preacher in ‘Pale Rider’; he’s not the enigmatic (if somewhat generic) quick-draw badass of ‘Hang ’Em High’, ‘Joe Kidd’ or ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’; and even though circumstances form him into someone who lives by the gun, he’s certainly a different breed to William Munny (“a man of notoriously vicious and intemperate disposition”) in ‘Unforgiven’.

Josey Wales is a farmer. He has a family, a house, an honest life. He only picks up a gun when these things are taken from him. A group of Confederates pass by in the aftermath of the Union attack, led by Fletcher (John Vernon). Wales joins them. A splendid example of montage, over which the opening credits play out, plots their course from vengeful fighters to broken men, exhausted and sick of fighting and ready to turn their arms over to the winning side and swear a reluctant oath to the Union.

Wales refuses. The others are led into a trap by the turncoat Fletcher. Fighting back, Wales manages to secure his escape, along with the wounded Jamie (Sam Bottoms). It’s the first of several betrayals: an oleaginous seller of snake oil and a hypocritical ferryman later compound Fletcher’s treachery. And yet for all this, Wales finds reason to live again. And to try to live peacefully. By the end of the film he’s brokered an understanding with the Commanche, while the denouement – although effectively cathartic – quite literally rejects the gun.

One of the many things I love about ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’ – along with its iconic and hugely quotable set-pieces (“Are you gonna pull them pistols or whistle ‘Dixie’?”; “Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy”), Bruce Surtees’s admirable cinematography, and a cluster of great performances (Chief Dan George as the rueful yet pragmatic Lone Watie is a standout) – is that Eastwood, as director*, never rams home or sentimentalizes the essential core of the film: Wales’s gaining of a new, ersatz family. Rather, he lets things develop organically, through a series of incredibly well nuanced and often underplayed vignettes, trusting to the interplay of the characters and the flow of the narrative to get the point across.

The result is a damn good film that demonstrates Eastwood’s leanings towards classicism as a filmmaker, and points the way to his fullest synthesis of the western in his masterpiece ‘Unforgiven’.

*He took over from – or kicked out, depending on your sources – Phil Kaufman early on in production.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I started this month’s Eastwood-fest with the intent of building up to Clint’s 80th birthday on the 31st of this month. But the “born today” sidebar on the IMDb home page has demonstrated that he’s not the only big screen idol celebrating this week.

Sir Ian McKellen – actor, LGBT champion and all-round top bloke – turned 71 on the 25th.

Today, Sir Christopher Lee – a man so utterly cool his filmography boasts ‘Dracula’, ‘The Wicker Man’ and a light-sabre duel with frickin’ Yoda – celebrates his 88th birthday.

Clint Eastwood – a bona fide legend whether he’s cop, cowboy, hero, anti-hero, actor or director – hits the big eight zero on Monday.

A large glass of pinot grigio is being raised at chez Agitation this evening. You guys are icons.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Enforcer

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 35 of 100

Thinking about the ‘Dirty Harry’ sequels, two things strike me: (i) none of them quite hit the high marks of the original – and at least one of them doesn’t even try*; and (ii) they tread a fine line between well-produced mainstream entertainment and unpretentious exploitation fare. Which, let’s face it, is true of the original.

Hence the vigilantism of ‘Magnum Force’, the rape-revenge theme of ‘Sudden Impact’ and the celebrity serial killer shenanigans of ‘The Dead Pool’.

Then we have the film currently under consideration (and chosen by dint of it being on British TV a couple of nights ago): ‘The Enforcer’. The second of the sequels, it starts with Harry Callahan – yeah, I took one look at the credits and groaned that I’d typed it as “Callaghan” in just about every frickin’ sentence of my ‘Dirty Harry’ review – and his old-timer partner DiGiorgio (John Mitchum) at the scene of a liquor store robbery gone wrong. Hostages have been taken. A woman is being held at gunpoint as the leader of the jittery quartet of cheap hoods makes his demands to the cops. Callahan plays negotiator. The hoods make the mistake of calling him a fucking pig and spitting on him. They demand immediate withdrawal of all police on the scene. They demand Callahan bring them a car. Which he does – driving it straight through the plate glass window. Then he blows the four of them away, coolly walking out of the now demolished store as DiGiorgio pumps a gas grenade into the place.

Next scene, Callahan’s up before pencil-neck office cop Captain McKay (Bradford Dillman) who berates him for landing the department with a $14,000 repair bill (1976 prices) and impending lawsuits from the traumatised hostages. A very pissed off and decidedly unappreciated Callahan finds himself transferred to Personnel, an assignment which occasions the following exchange:

Callahan: Personnel? That’s for assholes!
McKay: I was in Personnel for ten years.
Callahan: Yeah.

His first duty in this least onerous of positions is assisting Lieutenant Dobbs (Will MacMillan) to invigilate interviews for an Inspector’s post. The interviews are being overseen by Mrs Grey (Jan Stratton), a prim ‘n’ proper type from the Mayor’s office keen to ascertain that equal opportunities are being adhered to during the screening process. When Callahan behaves confrontationally towards rookie applicant Kate Moore (Tyne Daly), Mrs Grey accuses him of sexism. Cue the following:

Dobbs: Are you finished with the questioning, Callahan?
Callahan (to Moore): Hypothetical situation: I’m standing on the street corner and Mrs Grey comes up and propositions me. She says if I come home with her, for five dollars she’ll put on an exhibition with a Shetland pony –
Mrs Grey: If this is your idea of humor, Inspector ...
Dobbs: All right, what are you trying to do here, Callahan?
Callahan: I’m just trying to find out if anybody in this room knows what the hell law is being broken, besides cruelty to animals.

‘The Enforcer’ is kind of the ‘Heartbreak Ridge’ of ‘Dirty Harry’ movies. The script’s ropey in terms of structure, riddled with stereotypes and doesn’t do anything you haven’t already seen done in a couple of dozen other movies, but it’s quotable as hell and often scurrilously funny, such as when Callahan, suspended by McKay, suggests the captain use his badge as “a seven-point suppository”, or – in a scene that would have today’s demographically-aware and simperingly PC executives shrieking in horror and lunging for the nearest editing machine – he informs a begrudgingly co-operative black militant “that’s mighty white of you”. Ouch!

The actual story gets underway somewhere around the half-hour mark and involves the least politically defined terrorist group in the history of cinema. They call themselves The People’s Revolutionary Strike Force and occasionally declare that what they do is (hey, the clue’s in the title) “for the people”. Beyond that, their politics seem curiously ill-defined. That’s “curiously ill-defined” as in “non-existent”. And for all that they heist weapons, shoot innocent bystanders, shoot each other, blow shit up and kidnap the mayor, they spend most of the movie looking more fey than fearsome, more girlie than guerrilla. Imagine a Peter, Paul and Mary tribute band made up of Baader-Meinhof rejects and you’ll get the picture.

It’s during their weapons heist that DiGiorgio gets caught in the crossfire. Callahan is transferred back to Homicide, partnered up with the newly promoted Inspector Moore and basically let off the leash. I guess the idea was to temper the revenge-thriller elements with some mismatched buddy comedy. Which might have worked had scripters Stirling Silliphant and Dean Riesner conjured any lines for Tyne Daly that matched the acerbic dialogue they wrought for Clint. As a result, Daly (six years before debuting in her defining role as Detective Mary Beth Lacey in ‘Cagney and Lacey’) gamely suffers through any number of painfully unamusing scenes playing the fall guy to Eastwood’s straight man until she’s finally allowed to cut loose with the weaponry and play with the big boys during the Alcatraz-set finale.

Director James Fargo orchestrates this sequence quite effectively, and makes good use of the location. Three films and three years later, Eastwood would be back there. This time with Don Siegel and the result, an often sombre mood piece, would be worlds removed from the loud, flashy, slam-bang pyrotechnics of Inspector Callahan’s third outing.

*Mentioning no names, ‘The Dead Pool’.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Final Girl conquers Nottingham

From the Nottingham Broadway Cinema’s June 2010 brochure:

You can read Stacie’s hilarious review of ‘Birdemic’ here.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

My best post / sharing the love

Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck has been kind enough to include The Agitation of the Mind in a round up of “blogs that definitely need to be on your to read list if they are not already”. His article is occasioned by a blogathon over at He Shot Cyrus, which commenced yesterday and runs till to tomorrow, designed to showcase its participants’ best writing.

For his submission, Bryce picked his article on ‘Kill Bill Vol 2’, then – being the blogging community’s equivalent of an officer and a gentleman – threw open the remit of his post to celebrated the achievements of half a dozen fellow bloggers. I’m honoured to be one of them.

I’d like to follow his lead and:

(a) Put forward my write-up on ‘Unforgiven’ for He Shot Cyrus’s blogathon. I blogged about this magisterial western a year ago as part of my ongoing Personal Faves project. It’s my absolute favourite Clint Eastwood movie and, in my humble opinion, the best western since Sam Peckinpah hung up his guns. It gets deeper, richer and more rewarding with every viewing.

(b) Share the love by recommending half a dozen favourite sites. Bryce has already saved me a job by giving a shout to Erich at Acidemic, Francisco at The Film Connoisseur and JD at Radiator Heaven, all of whom have been long-term residents on my blog-roll. They would have been amongst my immediate choices if Bryce hadn’t already sung their praises. They’re all more than more of your attention. As are these luminaries:

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy. The Oscar Wilde of film critics, Tim’s reviews are characterized by an elegant wit sometimes tinged with mordant sarcasm. But here’s the thing: when he’s sarcastic, it’s because the movie fucking deserves it. He approaches everything equally, from the mainstream to the arthouse, and the only villain is lazy filmmaking.

Aaron at The Death Rattle. Whether he’s stalking the shadowy corridors of a Universal b&w monster movie retrospective or wallowing in the venal pleasures of a video nasties overview, Aaron runs The Death Rattle on one abiding principle: no bullshit. He walks it like he talks it and tells it like he sees it. Plus the guy’s interviewed Sherilyn Fenn, which is pretty damn cool in anyone’s book.

A two-for-one cheat here: the Olson brothers. Kevin at Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies and Troy at Elusive As Robert Denby. For one blogger to achieve a style of writing that’s erudite yet conversational, in-depth but effortless, is worthy of praise; when there’s two of them and they’re brothers to boot, it’s the icing on the cake. And if you want to go one better, the cherry on the icing is that they periodically co-review a genuinely fuck-awful movie (their last victim: the ‘Wicker Man’ remake) and the results are unmissable.

Samuel at Mondo 70. The blog as delicatessen: a smorgasbord of the cult, kitsch and crazy is on the menu every time you drop in. Your maitre d’ Sam is unerring in his ability to unearth offbeat gems. My rental list has quadrupled in size thanks to this guy.

Hans at Quiet Cool. What I love about Hans’s reviews is that his starting point is always the film’s atmosphere. He has a talent for capturing the dynamic of a scene, the quality of an actor’s performance or the signature visual style a director brings to the material – and doing so economically. Hans doesn’t just leave me wanting to watch a bunch of movies I’ve not seen before; he leaves me understanding why I want to see them.

Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck. This isn’t just me repaying the compliment in kiss-ass stylee. Bryce’s blog is an essential read. The title says it all (and damned if he doesn’t have one of the coolest titled sites in the blogosphere): it’s an incisive and more often than not mordantly funny account of, as Bryce puts it himself, “one man’s journey through the things that keep him from running a straight razor down his arm”. I can’t think of any better reason for blogging than that.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 34 of 100

It’s fair to say that Clint Eastwood has pretty much one style of acting: minimal. According to an Eastwood biography I read earlier this year – ‘Clint: The Life and Legend’ by Patrick McGilligan (actually it’s more a 600-page character assassination than a biography, which is why I haven’t bothered reviewing it for this month’s Eastwood-fest) – he’s that rarest of actors: a man who scours screenplays demanding his characters be given less dialogue, not more.

Fortunately Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink and Dean Riesner’s script escaped with its big speech intact, allowing rogue cop Harry Callaghan (Eastwood) to draw down on his nemesis whilst delivering the following immortal lines: “I know what you’re thinking, punk. You’re thinking: did he fire six shots or only five? Now to tell you the truth, I kind of forgot myself in all this excitement. But being as this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and will blow you head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

Am I pushing it by claiming this little monologue as the “to be or not to be” of action movies? Debate that one in the comments section; all I know is that it’s the first movie speech I ever knew off by heart. And Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio killer was one of the first movie villains who ever truly scared the crap out of me.

For all that Eastwood’s onscreen minimalism underpins his iconic coolness, credit must be given to those co-stars whose more effusive turns have provided the contrast against which said iconic coolness is emphasised. Perhaps the best example is Eli Wallach in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, all jittery unpredictability, chewing his way through all the best lines in the script. Then there’s George Kennedy’s motor-mouth supporting role in ‘The Eiger Sanction’, Jaimz Woolvett’s piss-and-vinegar personifaction of the Schofield Kid in ‘Unforgiven’, Donald Sutherland’s prototype hippie in ‘Kelly’s Heroes’, Richard Burton’s magnificently sozzled man of action in ‘Where in Eagles Dare’ … hell, even the orang-utan in ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ and ‘Any Which Way You Can’ fits the bill.

Andrew Robinson in ‘Dirty Harry’ fulfils the same role as these others. He also emerges as one of the few antagonists in the Eastwood canon who provides a palpable threat; in fact, it wasn’t until the one-two of John Malkovich’s political assassin in ‘In the Line of Fire’ and Gene Hackman’s stone-cold portrayal of “Little” Bill Daggett in ‘Unforgiven’ that his protagonists were faced with such a challenge again.

Based on the Zodiac killer (David Fincher’s eponymous film includes a suitably satirical reference to ‘Dirty Harry’), Robinson’s Scorpio is the sociopath writ large: unhinged, obsessive and determined to drag Callaghan down to his level in a battle of wits that’s as psychopathic as it is psychological. His most grimly embittered scene – worse, in some ways, than the climactic sequence where he commandeers a school bus, pitilessly terrorising his tearful hostages – comes after Callaghan effects his arrest by flaunting due process. The legal system declares that Scorpio’s rights have been violated and he is released. He immediately hires a muscular gentleman of African American heritage to beat him to a pulp; as he’s wheeled into hospital on a gurney, reporters flapping around him, he weakly asserts that it was Callaghan who beat him up. It’s chilling enough that Scorpio goes to such lengths to score points against Callaghan, but what makes the scene gut-twistingly sickening is the way he racially goads his pugilist into really doing a job on him.

It would have been easy for Robinson to have walked off with the film, leaving only the title as a reminder of Eastwood’s part. Yet ‘Dirty Harry’ is one of the quintessential Clint titles. The aforementioned speech helps, but there are simply a plethora of iconic and cynically entertaining moments: Callaghan’s blunt verbal exchanges with both his long suffering boss Lt. Bressler (Harry Guardino) and the less-suffering but politically motivated Mayor (John Vernon); Callaghan persuading a potentially suicidal citizen down from the ledge by the unpretentious expedient of punching him unconcious and slinging him over his shoulder; Callaghan breaking off from his lunch to intercede in a bank robbery, turning an urban street into a war zone then wandering back into the deli to finish his sandwich.

‘Dirty Harry’ is easy to criticise nearly forty years after its original release: in its ethnic characters, its casual incorrectness and its throwaway violence, it’s very much a product of its times. It also feeds ammunition to a small but vocal encampment of critics who persistently and tiresomely dismiss Eastwood’s cinema as right-wing. Me, I don’t get involved in politics. I just dig movies. And ‘Dirty Harry’ – boasting gritty direction by Don Siegel and defined by Eastwood’s most in-yer-face and unapologetic anti-hero – is powerhouse movie.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Heartbreak Ridge

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 33 of 100

In the first scene of 'Heartbreak Ridge', Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway (Eastwood) is languishing in a holding cell prior to being had up before the judge on a drunk and disorderly charge. Well, not so much languishing as holding court, regaling a young detainee with a story of overseas service, oriental brothels and exotic whores. Up comes some wannabe hard guy, built like a brick shithouse, and the following exchange takes place:

Wannabe Hard Guy: I don't like soldier boys.
Highway: Say what?
Wannabe Hard Guy: If you wanna pop that puppy's can, you don't have to grease him so hard, jarhead.
Highway: Sounds like you're a man of experience.
Wannabe Hard Guy: What the hell's that supposed to mean, grunge shit?
Highway: It means be advised: I'm mean, nasty and tired. I eat concertina wire and piss napalm and I can put a round in a flea's ass at 200 meters. So why don't you go hump somebody else's leg, mutt face, before I push yours in.
Wannabe Hard Guy: Ain't gonna be so smart with your balls stuffed in your mouth, jarhead.

A fight ensues. Highway wins. In the next scene, the judge fines him $100, citing Highway's excellent military record as the reason for his leniency. Highway accepts the fine with a growl. Outside, the sheriff who arrested him in the first place moseys over and harangues him. The following exchange takes place:

Sheriff: You know one of these days you'll be puking blood in some alley and you're going to look up and see me standing there.
Highway: Keep dreaming, shitball.
Sheriff: You're going to pay full price, Rummy. I don't give no serviceman's discount.
Highway: That's too bad, I heard your old lady does.

Returning to active duty, Highway finds himself on a shit detail assisting a quartermaster who's running a fiddle. The quartermaster offers him a cigar and tries to grease the wheels. The following exchange ensues:

Quartermaster: Looks like you could use a little lift, Highway. Why don't you suck on one of these. Smooth as a prom queen's thigh only not quite as risky. Havana cured. Got a pal over in Guantanamo in supply. We do each other favors. I've got lots of friends. Of course, I could always use another friend.
Highway: So that we can do each other favors?
Quartermaster: Sure. See, if your pencil wasn't quite so sharp and your eyesight not quite so clear around here I could make your lot in the military life a lot more comfy. Not to mention down right rewarding.
Highway: Sergeant, you get that contraband stogie out of my face before I shove it so far up your ass you'll have to set fire to your nose to light it.

The shit detail doesn't last long and Highway finds himself transferred back to his old unit, which is now under the command of Major Powers (Everett McGill), a prissy bureaucrat who's previous experience was in supplies and has never seen a war zone. Given command of an undisciplined and attitudinous recon platoon, he introduces himself thusly: "My name's Gunnery Sergeant Highway and I've drunk more beer and banged more quiff and pissed more blood and stomped more ass that all of you numbnuts put together." Having berated his men in imaginative fashion for a while, he heads for a local bar where his ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason) is working and promptly gets into an altercation with the owner (who is also Aggie's new boyfriend). When the publican offers to wrap a baseball bat around Highway's head, the gunnery sergeant makes the following counter-offer: "Why don't I bend you over the table there and nail you in the keester... send you home with a just-pumped-the-neighbour's-cat" look on your face?"

As you've probably guessed from the amount I've quoted, the dialogue is singularly the best thing about 'Heartbreak Ridge': earthy, coarse and politically incorrect to the nines, James Carabatsos's screenplay makes poetry of profanity. In most other respects, though, it's an unremarkable script translated into an unremarkable film. Structurally, it's a mess: subplots regarding Highway's platoon drift in and out of focus, while the ongoing rivalry between Highway and Powers being foregrounded despite becoming repetitive very quickly. The splendid Marsha Mason ignites the screen as Highway's feisty ex, but the script gifts her with little material beyond a few contrived arguments. The dialogue is often funny as fuck, the mirth factor multiplied thanks to Eastwood's po-faced delivery, but Carabatsos writes just about every character in the same "voice".

The major flaw of 'Heartbreak Ridge' is its eleventh hour abandonment of barrack-based tomfoolery in favour of sending the recon platoon into action. This is where time has not been kind to the film. Beyond the obvious verbal pyrotechnics of the dialogue, it has two things to offer: (a) the satisfaction of watching a smartmouthed protagonist repeatedly piss off a prissy and ineffectual superior and (b) the juxtaposition of training camp with the reality of armed conflict. 'Heartbreak Ridge' was released in 1986. Within a year it had been bested in these categories by, respectivey, 'Good Morning Vietnam' and 'Full Metal Jacket'. These films - albeit deploying drastically different aesthetic approaches - highlighted the pointlessness of the Vietnam war. 'Heartbreak Ridge' feels like an anachronism: as an exercise in pro-military right-wing soldier porn, 'An Officer and a Gentleman' got there first (four years earlier). As a war movie, it eschews the still fertile subject matter of the Great War, the Second World War or Vietnam. 'Heartbreak Ridge' sends its hard-bitten hero and his team of greenhorns in country to ... Grenada.

Go here for a quickie Wikipedia history lesson. Check out the bit about President Reagen's concern over the safety of 800 American medical students at St George's School of Medicine as the motivating factor for the American invasion. The St George's rescue is depicted in the film. 800 American med students, right? In the liberation of Grenada according to Carabatsos, the Marines rescue two dozen blonde, blue-eyed cheerleader types in tight tee-shirts and hot pants, not one of whom is wearing a nurse's uniform or clutching a copy of Gray's anatomical textbook, and a couple of nerdy looking guys who were probably put there to make the Marines look cooler. This done, Highway and co. storm up a hill, enter into a firefight, get pinned down, call in an air strike to save their sorry asses, then fly back home to a hero's welcome, much flag-waving, a military band pumping out 'The Liberty Bell' as if their salaries depended on it, and Aggie in a summer dress ready to get back together with her man. The end.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Escape from Alcatraz

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 32 of 100

The fifth collaboration between Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is a steadily-paced, slow-burn drama adapted from J.Campbell Bruce’s non-fiction book about the most famous (and possibly only successful) escape attempt from the notorious prison island. I use the word “possibly” advisedly. Although the official investigation concluded that the escapees – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin – were drowned, their bodies were never found. The film adds a fictitious but nicely understated coda which both implies the success of the escape attempt and serves as a “fuck you” to the Warden.

In the film, Morris is played by Eastwood and John and Clarence Anglin by Fred Ward and Jack Thibeau respectively. The Warden at the time of the real-life escape was Olin Blackwell; he was the last Warden of Alcatraz and the facility closed a year after the Morris/Anglin escape. The Warden, played by Patrick McGoohan, is unnamed and at one point refers to Blackwell as his predecessor (presumably to avoid litigation since Richard Tuggle’s screenplay paints the Warden as a sadistic bastard). ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ marks Tuggle’s debut (he went on to write and direct the dark and ambiguous ‘Tightrope’ for Eastwood) as well as Fred Ward’s and that of Danny Glover, who appears in a small role as one of the inmates.

It’s the casting of McGoohan, however, that’s most interesting. A decade after his career-defining turn as Number Six in ‘The Prisoner’ – and following some run-of-the-mill parts in ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’, ‘Silver Streak’ and TV series ‘Rafferty’ – ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ gave McGoohan the first part he seemed to fully engage with since he escaped The Village. As Alex Cox remarked in an introduction to the film as part of the “Moviedrome” series, “Number Six has become Number Two.” It strikes me that in ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, Number Six becomes a specific Number Two.

For anyone whose only exposure to ‘The Prisoner’ is the misconceived remake with Jim Cavaziel in the McGoohan role (a so-called “re-imagining” that tried too hard both to incorporate tropes from the original and do its own thing, and ultimately got lost somewhere inbetween), Number Two was played by a different actor in virtually every episode (although Colin Gordon appeared in two episodes and Leo McKern in three). It’s Patrick Cargill’s prissy, twitchy, malicious characterization of Number Two in the episode “Hammer Into Anvil” that McGoohan seems to be channelling in his portrayal of the Warden; and the final scene of ‘Escape from Alcatraz’, where the Warden is summoned back to the mainland to answer to his superiors, is reminiscent of Number Two’s defeat by Number Six in that episode.

Fortunately, though, there is no attempt to synthesize Number Six into Frank Morris, otherwise the ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ could have been as overloaded with ‘Prisoner’ subtext as this article! Eastwood’s minimalistic style of acting is entirely suited to Morris, and Siegel’s direction – unintrusive and attentive to detail – is just as appropriate. The first half of the film captures the routines, cadences and repetitions of prison life, the slow passing of hard time occasionally interrupted by the threat of violence, here personified by Wolf (Bruce M Fischer): a big bastard hellbent on making Morris his bitch. When Wolf puts the moves on Morris in the shower block, Morris the only cock he gets is cold-cocked (sorry, couldn’t resist!). Later, Wolf tries to shank Morris in the yard; the fight is broken up by the guards and both Wolf and Morris are put into solitary confinement, despite Morris’s justified protestation that “he came at me”.

Solitary, with its attendant humiliation of being hosed down, piques Morris’s hatred of the Warden. When privileges are pettily revoked from two older timers Morris has befriended – Doc (Roberts Blossom) and Litmus (Frank Ronzio) – resulting in one of them immolating himself and the other suffering a heart attack, after which the Warden threateningly informs Morris that “some men are destined never to leave Alcatraz … alive”, Morris decides that escape is the best form of revenge.

Slow-burn gradually flares into legitimate tension as the escape attempt gets under way, with shakedowns, the reappearance of a vengeful Wolf and the possibility of Morris’s transfer to another cell block forcing the conspirators to make their bid for freedom earlier than originally planned. The escape itself is a mostly wordless sequence that Siegel films with taut realism. Indeed, realism was Siegel’s watchword: the film was shot on Alcatraz itself, the prison buildings restored to their 1962 condition, and despite a few anachronisms a powerful sense of confinement and claustrophobia is achieved.

‘Escape from Alcatraz’ is a reined-in, low-key piece of film-making, one that probably bemused audiences anticipating the Eastwood/Siegel dynamic of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ or ‘Dirty Harry’ but would have come as no surprise to aficionados of ‘The Beguiled’. With Eastwood taking increasing control of his own projects – more and more frequently fulfilling the triumvirate of actor, director, producer – this was the last film Eastwood made with Siegel; it was a sobering and atmospheric swansong.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Eiger Sanction

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 5 of 10 / Overall: 31 of 100

I’ve mentioned before in this month of all things Eastwood that the rugged icon is best known for westerns and cop movies. Throw in the catch-all category “thriller” to encompass everything from ‘Play Misty for Me’ and ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ to the likes of ‘In the Line of Fire’ and ‘Absolute Power’, factor in a handful of war movies, and the lion’s share of Eastwood’s filmography emerges as resolutely genre based.

Arguably, the two least successful genres Eastwood has ventured into have been sci-fi and espionage, although Eastwood was savvy enough to yoke his one sci-fi movie, ‘Space Cowboys’, to the iconography of his earlier westerns and to play the whole thing as a comedy. Neither of his espionage outings, ‘The Eiger Sanction’ and ‘Firefox’, play to the established Eastwood iconography; both are crushingly humourless in their execution.

Whereas Eastwood’s anti-hero persona is well-suited to the espionage genre, his physicality and the trigger-happy aesthetics of The Man With No Name and Dirt Harry aren’t. You couldn’t image Clint Eastwood in a Graham Greene, John le Carré or Len Deighton adaptation. He doesn’t have the sly but world-weary demeanour of George Smiley or the roll-with-the-punches tenacity of Bernard Samson.

And he doesn’t exactly spring to mind as a first choice for Jonathan Hemlock, either. Hemlock was the protagonist of two novels by mono-monikered scribe Trevanian, ‘The Eiger Sanction’ and ‘The Loo Sanction’. In bringing the first of these to the screen, nobody involved in the project seemed to realise that the novel was a spoof. An elegant, subtle and intelligently written one, but a spoof nonetheless. Hemlock – variously a scholar, art collector and cold-blooded assassin – represents a cocking of the snook to a certain Mr Bond. (To be fair, though, the satire is probably better suited to the page, where Trevanian’s prose by its very elegance shows up Ian Fleming’s breathless, telegraphic journalist’s style.)

Granted, a novel can be brought to the screen with significant tonal differences and still be a great work in its own right. Classic example: Pierre Bouille’s ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ is satirical; David Lean’s film version is played straight.

‘The Eiger Sanction’, however, suffers from being played straight. It runs a gamut of clichés – former agent brought out of retirement for One Last Job; his erstwhile paymasters have ulterior motives; coercion into doing One Last One Last Job; rigorous training programme to get him fit for the mission; revelations from the past; obligatory Twist In The Tale – that are palatable in Trevanian’s hands purely because he’s playing with the conventions of the genre. Under Eastwood’s direction, these are things to be got out of the way in a lip-service approach to narrative before the real business gets underway.

The real business of ‘The Eiger Sanction’ is the mountain-climbing sequences. And it has to be said, for all of its earlier deficiencies, the last half hour is jaw-droppingly impressive, every frame of it shot for real. No matte backgrounds, no studio mock-ups, no compositing or special effects or trick photography. Bruce Surtees, Eastwood’s regular lensman, captures the vertiginous dangers of the Eiger, his camera appraising the treacherous slopes with an all-too-believable wariness.

Ultimately, ‘The Eiger Sanction’ doesn’t invite or respond to critical analysis. ‘The Eiger Sanction’ is solely about visual spectacle. And when Eastwood breaks out the pitons and the guide rope and starts climbing, the film delivers.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

High Plains Drifter

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 30 of 100

Clint Eastwood’s status as an icon of the western genre was established on the small screen by his portrayal of Rowdy Yates in ‘Rawhide’ and consolidated by his three-film stint as The Man With No Name for Sergio Leone.

Leone found immediate fame and an international audience with the first film of this trilogy, ‘A Fistful of Dollars’, never mind that it was firmly bracketed as a spaghetti western – a pejorative term for mass produced Italian or Spanish cowboy movies made cheaply and aimed predominantly at the American drive-in audience.

The other, less popular, term for these kind of films was “horse opera”. This is definitely the more apposite description for Leone’s work in the genre. His westerns are epic and baroque. If Verdi had traded in the three-act operatic form for a poncho and a pair of pistols, he’d have been Sergio Leone.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Eastwood’s first western as director – following his apprenticeship under Leone in the Dollars trilogy and under Siegel in the southern gothic melodrama ‘The Beguiled’ – would have something of the grand guignol about it.

‘High Plains Drifter’, however, was grand guignol beyond anybody’s expectations. At its apotheosis the film is borderline surreal, closer in tone to Fellini or Buñuel than Leone.

The opening shot is of a heat haze – a mirage – shimmering over a desolate landscape. The Stranger (Eastwood) appears. By the end credits it’s left to the viewer to decide whether he’s a ghost, a reincarnation or an avenging angel. I make no apologies for not flagging a spoiler alert. Even if you know how ‘High Plains Drifter’ ends, and even if you’re convinced as to your take on The Stranger’s provenance, it makes not a jot of difference: ‘High Plains Drifter’ is a mood piece; it’s about atmosphere; about challenging preconceived notions of what a western should be, what it should deliver, how it should resolve itself.

The Stranger rides into the lakeside town of Lago. He hits the saloon and orders a beer and a whisky chaser. And when he orders a whisky chaser you’d better believe he means a bottle. Three bad dudes suggest, in so many words, that he might like to leave town. The Stranger ignores their advice. He finishes his beer and takes the whisky bottle with him when he heads over to the barber’s for a shave. The bad dudes follow and give him some shit. He blows them away.

Turns out these guys were the meanest, hardest and deadliest gunslingers the town council could afford, retained to protect the citizenry against the imminent release from jail of Stacey Bridges (Geoffrey Lewis) and his two gang members, a triumvirate who had previously terrorized Lago to the point of whipping lawman Jim Duncan (Buddy van Horn) to death. With the supposedly hard-ass but actually depressingly ineffectual gunslingers now pushing up daisies, the elders of Lago, represented by milquetoast current sheriff Sam Shaw (Walter Barnes), offer The Stranger whatever he wants in order to take their place and provide a first line of defence against Bridges and co.

We’re into Faust territory here. The townsfolk make a deal with the devil/avenging angel [delete as applicable] and are paid back tenfold for standing by and doing nothing while Duncan was murdered. One of The Stranger’s initial acts is to drag town harlot Callie (Marianna Hill) into a barn and force himself upon her. Initially depicted apropos of nothing, it’s a horrible scene. Later, when it’s revealed that Callie had been whoring herself out to Bridges during his reign of terror, a context is established but the scene remains as controversial and challenging in 2010 as it must have done when the film first hit the big screen almost forty years ago.

His sociopathy given free reign, The Stranger strips sheriff and mayor of their civic rank and appoints a dwarf in their place. He runs the other guests out of Lago’s hotel and occupies the entire building himself; when an assassination attempt is made on him, he dynamites the building in order to defeat his antagonists, leaving the hotelier divested of his livelihood. Elsewhere, he all but bankrupts the publican buying everybody in town a round; he snubs the racist manager of a general store by compelling him to turn over his choicest goods to an Indian family; he has every building in Lago repainted red, renames the town “Hell” and lays out picnic tables in honour of Bridges’ return.

When Bridges and co. come riding into Lago, The Stranger – having armed and stationed the citizenry in ambush formation – cavalierly rides out of town and lets them fend for themselves. Needless to say, Bridges and his cronies hand the good people of Lago their arses on a plate.

Only then does The Stranger make his return appearance …

‘High Plains Drifter’, in its dabbling with the mystical, presupposes both ‘Pale Rider’ where Eastwood’s character can again be seen as an avenging angel (this time dressed as a preacher and making his entrance as if in embodiment of a young woman’s prayers) and ‘Tightrope’ where he plays a morally corrupt cop on the trail of a sex killer who, for all intents and purposes, could either be a ghost or his own reflection. There’s a weirdness to ‘High Plains Drifter’, a sense of the off-kilter, that owes as much to Ernest Tidyman’s brooding screenplay and Bruce Surtees’ magnificent cinematography as to Eastwood’s edgy performance and restless direction.

There are at least half a dozen westerns on Eastwood’s CV that are undeniably classics. ‘High Plains Drifter’ is one of them, and it has an atmosphere and an iconography all of its own.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Play Misty for Me

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 29 of 100

Made the same year, ‘Play Misty for Me’ is something of a companion piece to ‘The Beguiled’ inasmuch as both films feature a protagonist of irresolute sexual commitment getting his just desserts at the hands of disturbed and vengeful women. Like ‘The Beguiled’, ‘Play Misty for Me’ would have the tang of blatant misogyny about it but for (a) the male protagonist (albeit to a lesser degree in ‘Play Misty’) deserving it; and (b) a powerhouse performance from the actress playing his antagonist.

While DJ David Garver (Eastwood) isn’t the liar, manipulator and borderline paedophile that McBurney is, he’s nonetheless a narcissist and, by dint of spending most of the movie thinking through his pecker, something of a fool. Garver is another of Eastwood’s anti-heroes. It’s fascinating that an actor who has maintained, over half a century of screen appearances, the reputation of the quintessential macho icon so frequently plays flawed characters. It’s also fascinating that in his directorial debut he plays not a cowboy or a cop or a rough ‘n’ ready action hero, but a laconic DJ who doesn’t use violence until he absolutely has no choice during the Hitchcockian finale. For much of the film, and despite his easy charm, Garver is something of a non-character, breezing through life with (at first) genial indifference, and later bland confusion as the implications of one bad decision snowball into psycho-sexual power games, stalking and finally violence.

And who is it who visits said anti-social behaviour upon him? Well, that brings us to point (b) and let’s have a great big hand, please, ladies and gentlemen, for Jessica Walter. Her turn as Evelyn Draper, the obsessed fan who repeatedly calls Garver’s show to request the sultry Errol Garner standard ‘Misty’, is the ace up the film’s sleeve. Without her, ‘Play Misty for Me’ would be at best a curio, notable for being Eastwood’s first outing behind the camera and for being a thriller that’s chiefly devoid of thrilleramics.

Let’s face it, for all of the clones that came after ‘Play Misty for Me’ (I’m looking at you, ‘Fatal Attraction’), you’d think it was a blueprint for the “woman scorned” thriller. And yet virtually every film that borrows from it, right down to a slew of top-shelf erotic thrillers, is tighter in its pacing and more urgent in its narrative arc. ‘Play Misty for Me’ downright meanders. It’s almost as if Eastwood can’t be bothered with the thriller elements. Late in the game, when everything should be revving up to high gear for the nail-biting denouement, Eastwood decelerates for an extended trip to the Monterey jazz festival, then puts the brake on altogether for a bit of how’s-your-father in the woods a la ‘Madame Bovary’ as Garver blithely decides to get back together with old flame Tobie (a bland Donna Mills).

Jessica Walter, however, lights the blue touch paper and burns up the screen every scene she’s in. From her sultry, underplayed pick-up of Garver in a bar tended by his friend Murphy (Don Siegel, mentoring his protégé) to her bouts of jealous rage by way of some moments that vacillate between sexy and scary so effectively that you’re not sure whether she’s fanciable or frightening, Evelyn Draper is one of American cinema’s great psychos, claiming lineage from the iconic and seductive man-eating femmes fatale of film noir, and more than capable of holding her own against the enduring villains of recent years. Give Hannibal Lecter a sex change, a mini skirt, a tube of lip gloss and a preference for ‘Misty’ over the Goldberg Variations and the result would be Evelyn Draper.

In fact, it’s probably Eastwood’s determination to strip away the thriller elements and let ‘Play Misty for Me’ unfold as an offbeat, free-wheeling character study that most benefits the film. With very few genre conventions and/or plot devices to distract the audience*, Walter’s performance is allowed centre stage, and Eastwood’s effortless cool has never seemed so threatened than by the dervish-like fury of Evelyn’s jealous rage.

*Indeed, the only real plot device that sneaks under the radar – matters pertaining to Tobie’s room mate – doesn’t hold water when you stop to consider the chronology of events.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

On a non-Eastwood-related note ...

… with all the “is-he-isn’t-he” speculation over Matthew Vaughn as director of the forthcoming ‘X-Men: First Class’, the question I want answering is this:

Will we get a 12-year-old Rogue walking into a room full of hard-ass bad guys and offering “All right, cunts, show me what you’ve got”?

Please God, yes. This could piss all over ‘Last Stand’.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Beguiled

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 2 of 10 / Overall: 28 of 100

‘The Beguiled’ opens with stark titles over a montage of archive photographs from the civil war. At first quietly, but then with increasing urgency and volume, a militaristic drumbeat fills the the soundtrack. A newcomer to ‘The Beguiled’ could be forgiven the false expectation of a dry-run for ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’.

The opening credits sequence is the only thing in ‘The Beguiled’ that conforms to expectations. The remaining 100 minutes play out like a prototype of ‘Misery’ but re-imagined as a western and directed by Roman Polanski. Confined setting, pressure cooker environment, sexual repression and a smattering of controversial moments. Director Don Siegel tosses one of them out pretty much straightaway. Picture the scene:

The montage of archive photographs segue into the first scene proper. The film is sepia for a few seconds, colour eventually bleeding into it, as if the scene were a continuation of the montage (Peckinpah would use a similar technique in ‘Cross of Iron’). A young girl (Pamelyn Ferdin) runs through the woods, gathering mushrooms. She comes across a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Clint Eastwood). Overcoming her initial fright, she helps him to his feet with the intention of taking him back to the school she attends. Hearing a patrol approaching, McBurney drags her into the undergrowth. “What’s your name?” he asks her. She tells him: Amy. McBurney asks her age. Twelve. “Old enough for kisses,” McBurney muses and covers her mouth with his as the patrol gallops past.

Dodgy enough for you yet? No? Okay, let’s meet the staff and some of Amy’s fellow pupils at the Farnsworth Academy for Young Ladies. There’s the owner and headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). She’s strict, matronly and gives the appearance of being the last word in prim and proper. You’d hardly think she used to have an incestuous relationship with her brother, or that she has a sexual interest in her devoted and virginal assistant Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman).

Edwina’s frigidity is contrasted with the melting pot of hormones constituted by the girls in her class. Castigating one of them for lack of attention during a French class, the girl in question replies, “I can’t concentrate because the war sounds so near … If the Union win, they’ll rape us all.”

Once Amy shows up with the injured McBurney, however, thoughts are less of rape than seduction. Amy’s sold on him already; the next expression of interest is from seductive nymphette Carol (Jo Ann Harris). Forget the Polanski comparisons for the moment; we’re in Nabokov territory here, with Carol as Lolita only a few years older and with more cleavage. McBurney’s not exactly your Humbert Humbert type, though. He’s younger, hunkier and has country boy charm in spades.

Martha orders that McBurney’s wounds be tended and that he is allowed to recover before being handed over to the next Confederate patrol. He is kept in a locked room. Nursing duties fall to black servant Hallie (Mae Mercer) – by Martha’s orders – and Edwina … by her own volition. When Carol intrudes on Edwina bathing the semi-conscious McBurney (the film was made in 1971, with Eastwood at the prime of his macho physicality) and offers to relieve her (and doubtless give McBurney a little relief as well), Edwina slaps her across the face and calls her a hussy.

McBurney first uses his charm on Martha, concerned with preventing his handing over to enemy troops. He smooth-talks Edwina. He appeals to Hallie, seeking to create empathy by suggesting they’re both prisoners. He doesn’t have to expend any effort with Carol, she’s so desperate to jump his bones it might as well be spelled out in neon. In time, even Martha becomes attracted by his sexual charisma, arranging for his room to be left unlocked one night so that he might visit her. He takes advantage of the situation to pay a visit to Carol instead, only for Edwina to catch them in flagrante delecto. What happens next moves ‘The Beguiled’ from western to chamber piece/character study to horror movie.

The genius of ‘The Beguiled’ is it never tips into the misogynistic fantasia many (male) directors would have made of it: an injured man trying to escape the clutches of a group of women who would variously betray, imprison or enslave him. True, he suffers at their hands as the film progresses – the first to turn against him is Carol when she catches him canoodling with Edwina and perpetrates an act that almost gets him arrested by a patrol – but by the time things get really dark and nasty, there’s no doubt that he deserves it.

For all that Siegel and scriptwriters John B. Sherry and Grimes Grice* (working from the novel by Thomas Cullinan) unambiguously establish the psychologically disturbed Martha as the villain of the piece, only the most blinkered Eastwood aficionado could mistake McBurney for the hero. From getting amorous with a twelve year old girl to romanticising his tawdry past (two crucial monologues are counterpointed by flashbacks that reveal McBurney as a blatant liar) to the act of violence that poisons even Amy against him, McBurney is a case study in compromised morality.

His darkest moment comes when, having reasserted his masculinity over his female captors (and, by this point, abusers), he holds Martha and gunpoint and declares that he intends to satisfy himself with whomever “wants the pleasure of my company”. He then turns his attention to Hallie: “You’re a handsome woman. I might start with you.” A flashback has Hallie cornered by Martha’s brother in the barn; he rips her bodice open and advances on her before she fends him off with a pitchfork. The implication is clear: just as Martha and her brother were two halves of an illicit union, McBurney and Martha are two sides of the same coin.

Reputedly Don Siegel’s personal favourite of his films, ‘The Beguiled’ is as potent an example of Southern gothic as has been put on screen. The atmosphere of sexual hysteria is barely contained, but Siegel manages to keep enough of a lid on things that the film never degenerates into histrionics or cheap melodrama. He also summons a wealth of fine performances. Eastwood digs beneath his laconic veneer to present a portrait of reptilian charm and moral corruption. It’s one of the first glimpses in his filmography of a flawed and not necessarily likeable protagonist.

But it’s the women of the cast to whom the film belongs. Page channels the kind of psychological intensity usually reserved for playing Lady Macbeth. Hartman invests Edwina with a heartbreaking fragility. Harris imbues Carol’s scenes with such jailbait sensuality that I was very glad to discover she was 22 at the time of shooting and not her character’s age. Lastly, Ferdin excels as Amy, the immediacy of her performance belying her age. In many respects it’s the understated scene, very late in the film, where Amy is persuaded into a certain course of action, that characterises ‘The Beguiled’. It is a film of bitter ironies and dark motivations, and all of them spring from the fallibility of the human condition.

*Pseudonyms for Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp. Maltz had been blacklisted as one of the “Hollywood Ten”.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Coogan's Bluff

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Clint Eastwood / In category: 1 of 10 / Overall: 27 of 100

Ask anyone to name Clint Eastwood’s two most iconic roles and I guarantee – guarantee – the answer will be The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. The cowboy and the cop. Although it predates ‘Dirty Harry’, Don Siegel’s culture-clash thriller ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ synthesizes these two aspects of the archetypal Eastwood persona. In fact, ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ is primarily remembered as the transitional film that moved the Eastwood of the westerns into a contemporary urban environment. This reputation seems to have lent the film a cachet that its slow pacing, reliance on stereotypes and moderately effective set-pieces don’t quite live up to.

‘Coogan’s Bluff’ was the first of five collaborations between Siegel and Eastwood over a decade (six if you count Eastwood casting Siegel in a small role in his directorial debut ‘Play Misty for Me’) and ranks with ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ as one of the least interesting things they did together. There’s none of the grand guignol perversity of ‘The Beguiled’, little of the iconography of ‘Dirty Harry’ and the pitting of Eastwood’s laconic minimalist acting style against the scenery chewing of Lee J. Cobb isn’t quite as interesting as the Clint Eastwood/Patrick McGoohan contrast in ‘Escape from Alcatraz’.

The slender narrative of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ is basically this: Arizona deputy sheriff Coogan (Eastwood), at loggerheads with his superiors over his laissez faire attitude to the job and all-round disregard for the rule book, is sent to New York to repatriate cocky young prisoner Ringerman (Don Stroud). When his NYPD contact Lt McElroy (Cobb) reveals that Ringerman is drying out from an LSD trip in the prison medical bay and there’s no telling how long it’ll be until the court releases him into Coogan’s care, Coogan decides to take matters into his own hands – only for Ringerman to promptly escape.

The script – credited to three writers – starts off in high gear with Coogan on home turf, tracking down and arresting a crook who’s headed out into the wilds with a high-powered rifle and the survival skills indigenous to a Native American. Two men, the elements, a desolate landscape. Plenty of western tropes. Clint in a cowboy hat. Five minutes into the movie and things are ticking along nicely. Then the scene shifts to the big city and the narrative meanders for a while until Ringerman escapes and Coogan’s pursuit puts some pace back into things for the last half hour.

A loose sequence of fish-out-of-water vignettes accounts for much of the first hour. Coogan rubs McElroy up the wrong way. Coogan rubs police psychiatrist Julie (Susan Clark) up the wrong way, before the two of them start flitting around each other in a pas de deux of a romantic subplot that goes unresolved. Coogan encounters hookers, hippies, pushers and pimps. A standing joke has everyone in New York mistake him for a Texan. Eastwood’s low-key performance style, where a snarl and a scowl speak a thousand words, could have made for some inspired moments, but the humour never quite gels.

Still, clocking in at just over an hour and a half, ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ remains a worthwhile slice of entertainment that never outstays its welcome. Siegel was too adept a film-maker to turn in anything that was less than watchable (even his lesser work, such as ‘The Black Windmill’ and ‘Telefon’, have a vigorous proficiency about them) and ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ boasts a brilliantly edited pool-hall fight and a climactic motorcycle chase that palpably communicates the speed and desperation of the pursuit. The Eastwood cop persona is effectively established (setting up ‘Dirty Harry’ three years later) and Stroud’s villain is good value.

Ultimately, ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ is fun but forgettable. Its supporting characters are ciphers and the filmmakers’ evocation of the underground scene (a nightclub called the Pigeon Toed Orange Peel!) is laughable. Nonetheless, I picked it as the lead-off for this month’s celebration of all things Clint because I wanted to pay proper tribute to the importance of Don Siegel in Eastwood’s career. Following the safe bet of ‘Two Mules for Sister Sara’ they re-teamed for ‘The Beguiled’, a psycho-sexual drama that is unlike anything else on Eastwood’s CV, and it’s this offbeat, disturbing and atmospheric opus that I’ll be reviewing next.