Arizona lawman Walt Coogan (Clint Eastwood) is tracking a man who has killed his wife on the local Native American reservation, and has ended up in the desert, not realising that his quarry is watching him and aiming a rifle at him. Coogan knows he's on the right trail when he finds the boots and clothes of the now stripped to a loincloth fugitive, and he manages to confuse him enough to capture him with no blood spilled. Later, he chains up his prisoner outside a girlfriend's home and pops inside for a bath and some lovin', much to the annoyance of his superiors. That's why Coogan is sent off the next day to New York to escort a prisoner back to Arizona...
Director Don Siegel had already made a tougher, grittier form of the traditional cop thriller with the same year's Madigan, but it was Coogan's Bluff, produced by star Eastwood's Malpaso company, that really set the template for decades of the things to come. Dirty Harry might have been the one they wanted to emulate (especially in its box office takings), but this film got there first with its rogue policeman and the unlovely villain he is on the trail of presented here as if it were unthinkable that there could be any other way of doing it in the crime genre.
But as well as that, Coogan's Bluff is a culture clash although not one which regards the hippies of the era with disdain so much as cynical amusement. As an outsider in New York, where he is barely tolerated even by the law, Coogan is the ideal observer for those who were not part of the underground scene of the late sixties, which would have been most of the audience even then. You can regard this as the equivalent of the Star Trek episode where the Enterprise is overrun with hippies, it's the same dynamic only instead of a sequence where the conservative Mr Spock jams with them, we have a bit where our comparitively straightlaced hero beds a hippie chick (Tisha Sterling, a sixties starlet who never quite made the big time).
That girl (who according to the probation report we glimpse is seventeen years old!) is the partner in crime and love of Ringerman (Don Stroud), a motorcycle riding crook who caused a ruckus in Coogan's home state and is currently residing in a New York Bellevue after a bad L.S.D. trip. When he meets with the Lieutenant in charge of the case (Lee J. Cobb) Coogan is told that he might have to wait anywhere from a week to a month for Ringerman to be released into his custody. That's not good enough for him and he proceeds to use his initiative and spring the criminal, but it backfires on him when he is beaten up and the bad guys make a swift getaway.
It's not really acknowledged in the film, but if Coogan hadn't been so eager and had stuck to the rules, then he might have saved himself a lot of trouble and had a nice New York holiday into the bargain. As it is, he is ordered home but refuses, turning vigilante to use his tracking skills in the big city for a change. Here he gets to meet some real lowlifes, including Ringerman's mother (Betty Field) who nearly throws a plant pot at his head, and a whole nightclub full of psychedelic groovers leading to a worlds in collision scene where Coogan picks his way through them, getting the information he needs from a naked lady. There's more convention from probation officer Susan Clark, but even she confounds the visitor by not jumping into bed with him and getting annoyed when he keeps chasing away her obnoxious clients. The film may be of its time in some regards, amusingly so, but this still a quality thriller from a director and star who were revolutionising the Hollywood mainstream. Music by Lalo Schifrin.