It’s not I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) (still the best chain gang movie I’ve seen)—but… Cool Hand Luke (1967; dir. Stuart Rosenberg) is a great showcase for Paul Newman and cinematographer Conrad Hall.
1950s Florida: After he beheads parking meters, Luke Jackson (Newman), a rudderless war hero, goes to a prison camp. There he shows that he’s not like the rest of the jailbirds (played by great B-actors, including George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Davalos, Dennis Hopper, and [an uncredited] Joe Don Baker). Less a big-mouthed peacock than a brooding malcontent, Luke earns the sobriquet of “Cool Hand Luke”—no matter the odds, he’ll coolly go for almost any stunt (including, in a dull sequence, whether he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs), up any ante, and poke any established norm he thinks might entertain—not just him, but the rest of the prisoners. But when Luke’s mother (Jo Van Fleet) dies, Luke tries (and tries again) to escape. Of course, he’s no match for the soft-spoken warden, the Captain (Strother Martin), and the prison guards that would sooner crush his defiant soul than swat a fly. Or is he?
The movie, for me, flags in the first half before Luke’s mom dies. I’m always thrown by how the prisoners fawn over Luke. They view him with awe. Call Luke a different sort—but not that different. These cats (especially the longer-serving ones) should know this guy’s game. Wouldn’t some of them be used to this can’t-quit, won’t-quit self-destruction? And you want Luke humbled. Were it not for Newman’s piercing blue-eyed stare—were it not for his quiet poise—Luke would lose us. Still. The dynamic between him and the other prisoners isn’t that believable.
But then the movie excels, as Luke’s desperation to break out of the joint corners him. The system that owns him won’t let him go. It’ll do anything to break him. Yet one could argue the Captain is just doing his job, as are the guards. If Luke’s a martyr, it’s only because Luke would like it so. His spirit is strong; and yes, goodness is in him. But Luke doesn’t need to be unbreakable to ‘win.’ He just needs to keep running, to keep standing until fate catches up with him. Luke isn’t to be pitied or lionized. He’s aimless, a man who falls into petty crime and finds his reason for being (his love of freedom) once he’s shackled. Futility suits him. By the movie’s end, Luke seems like a real guy—even if Rosenberg and co. insist on making him a saint of nonconformity.
Cool Hand Luke was a hit. It connected with the anti-establishment crowd of the day. Much of it doesn’t work—but then there’s Newman’s performance. If the movie weren’t such a clear star vehicle—if Newman had turned Luke into a scene-chewer, the opposite of Newman himself, a cool customer—I doubt the movie would have the impact it does.
Hall’s cinematography is a beaut, too. With Stockton, California doubling for the South, Hall makes vivid the sweat and grind of this world. Unlike so many other stillborn Hollywood entertainments of the era, the movie has a vivid, you-are-there feeling that comes through loud and clear thanks to his eye for detail.
As the Captain, Martin is perfect. (He says the movie’s most famous line, “What we have here is failure to communicate.”) As Dragline, the leader of the prisoners, Kennedy is a treat. (He won an Oscar for his work.) Dragline is barrel-chested fun. Without him as an amused, humorous foil for Luke, the latter’s terse, semi-withdrawn nature could be a bit much. I’d even wager the story would have benefited from using Dragline’s point of view to refract Luke’s story, to better convey (and justify) the mythic stature Luke gains among the prisoners.
So, Cool Hand Luke has wonderful performances and great cinematography. It could have been a much better movie. But it’s a simple story about a certain man.
I appreciate the way Newman leans into it.
On the new Warner Bros 4K disc, the movie looks fantastic. Special features include an audio commentary by historian/Newman biographer Eric Lax. Just on the Blu-ray disc of the film—included with the 4K set that also provides access to a digital copy of the movie—is the film’s theatrical trailer and a making-of documentary, A Natural-Born World-Shaker.