Coogan’s Bluff & The Beguiled & Catlow - (1968, 1971, 1971)
After making his first film in 1946 (the nifty Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre crime thriller The Verdict, which both predates Dirty Harry and Siegel’s talent for audience misdirection), and directing twenty-four features, in 1968 Siegel was to start the creative collaboration that would soon define his career. His first film with Clint Eastwood, Coogan’s Bluff. It was the French Cahiers du Cinéma crowd and Andrew Sarris that made Siegel an auteur. But it was Coogan’s Bluff that made Siegel, for the first time in his career, a major Hollywood director. Coogan’s Bluff plays like a trial run for the next twenty years of action cinema. It’s with Coogan’s Bluff that Eastwood would establish his post Leone persona. A persona that would dominate action cinema for the next twenty-five years. Coogan, the Stetson hat wearing Arizona deputy sheriff, would bridge the gap between the western hero that Eastwood was known for, and the big city cop he would become known for. Plus the whole film in the light of history plays like a Dirty Harry dress rehearsal. After the release of Dirty Harry it became the most imitated and ripped off action film of the modern age. But even more important to Coogan’s Bluff legacy than Dirty Harry are the comedic action films of the eighties, best epitomized by Eddie Murphy’s 48 Hours & Beverly Hills Cop. Yes of course the whole fish-outta’-water storyline of both Beverly Hills Cop & Crocodile Dundee are the same as Siegel’s film (after Paramount put Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ into turnaround, the executives told him you can direct any movie we’re making, and handed him the script to Beverly Hills Cop. Scorsese read it and told them, it’s Coogan’s Bluff).
But there’s a more interesting level of influence on Walter Hill’s 48 Hours. First, there’s the cop taking custody of a con set-up, only done as a buddy movie in the Hill film (speaking of Siegel influence, Nolte and the too-soon-to-be-dead cops who have the first encounter with trigger happy James Remar and Sonny Landham in the seedy hotel, could be the opening scene of Siegel’s Madigan). But more importantly, the single biggest influence on 48 Hours, and eighties action cinema in general, was the surprising comic tone of Coogan’s Bluff. For all intents and purposes, what we think of as comedic action cinema was born the day Coogan’s Bluff was released. Action films had been funny before (Howard Hawks), and even Eastwood had made funny action films before (Leone’s Dollars Trilogy is fucking hysterical), but not quite like Coogan’s Bluff. Siegel establishes a tone of genuine wit in the film’s first half, both through dialogue (the clueless New Yorkers constantly referring to the cowboy hat wearing Arizona lawman as Tex), and the comic interplay of the performers. Especially a more animated then usual Eastwood, and a never more charismatic Lee J. Cobb. Then contrasts it with Eastwood’s no nonsense attitude towards the film’s heavy Don Stroud, who shares a superficial similarity with James Remar’s escaped convict killer in 48 Hours (Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley would share a similar played-straight antagonism with Steven Berkoff’s Victor Maitland). Then punctuates it with action set pieces designed to thrill or scare, Stroud’s airport escape (good), the pool hall brawl (great), and the climatic motorcycle chase (silly).
This somber story set during the Civil War deals with a wounded Yankee solder (Clint Eastwood), who’s found and given shelter by the young students of a southern girls finishing school. As the females hide the bedridden enemy soldier from patrolling bands of rebels, the sexy enemy begins to become a catalyst for the women and girl’s different desires. “The Beguiled” was the closest Siegel ever came to making an art film (it was his favorite of all his pictures), and truth be told, as good as it is, as its director, he’s miscast. While the offbeat film is ultimately successful, it does bring out Siegel’s worst stylistic impulses. His fondness for Freudian imagery, his literalness in a tale that screams for ambiguity (a dream sequence in the middle makes explicit everything that had only been suggested). However, once Siegel settles down and focuses on Eastwood, the film comes alive. “The Beguiled” deals with its gothic Ambrose Bierce Americana in a decidedly Gallic way. In a lot of ways it could be a same-era René Clément film, with Eastwood playing the Alain Delon male sex object part (Siegel’s first choice for the headmistress was Jeanne Moreau, though it’s hard to imagine bettering Geraldine Page’s portrayal). Because of the choice of subject matter, tone, approach, and especially Bruce Surtees’ cinematography, it’s the most like a later day Eastwood-directed picture.
Based on the novel by popular and prolific western writer Louis L’Amour (supposedly his funniest book), and directed by actor Sam Wanamaker (the director of the Lancer pilot), along with Burt Kennedy’s Dirty Dingus Magee & Andrew V. McLaglen’s Something Big, Catlow is my nomination for worst studio western of the seventies. Yul Brynner, in the worst performance of his career, plays Catlow, the leader of a cattle drive of rustled cattle. The cows aren’t really rustled, they’re maverick steers that the politically connected, greedy guts Cattlemen’s Association (boo-hiss) have deemed rustled to squash the little man on the march. So hot on Catlow and his silly cowpoke compañero’s trail (including Jeff Corey in the old timer Arthur Hunnicutt sidekick role), are two different lawmen. One, a deputy Marshall (Richard Crenna, the film’s real lead), who’s an old friend of the cantankerous Catlow. Crenna, with warrant in hand, wants to bring his old friend into custody safe and sound. But much to Crenna’s chagrin, the wily Catlow keeps tricking, outsmarting, and thwarting his efforts. The other being a bounty hunter played by Leonard Nimoy, who had a vendetta against the bald one, and intends to bring him back dead over a saddle. Yul Brenner, so good in the same year’s The Light At The Edge Of The World, is badly miscast as Catlow. He just can’t pull off this rascally happy-go-lucky Glenn Ford type charmer. Rod Taylor, who at that time was in a similar boat as Brenner, would have made a terrific Catlow. Thankfully, his work in Margheriti’s Death Rage (his best seventies performance) was in his future. And, in Michael Crichton’s Westworld, Yul got his iconic persona back on track. For a few moments in the beginning, Nimoy seems promising, if only for the fact it’s his lone theatrical movie (till Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978) post Star Trek fame. Since he’s the only character allowed to play dangerous, you keep waiting for Nimoy’s more serious movie to take over. But by mid-film Nimoy’s character loses his credibility along with everybody else. Highlight, Julián Mateos, Spanish star of Sergio Corbucci’s The Hellbenders. Lowlight, Jo Ann Pflug, TV mainstay and Lt. Dish in Altman’s M.A.S.H., playing Mateos’ supposedly Mexican sister.