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Case Number 14412

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Cool Hand Luke

Warner Bros. // 1967 // 126 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // September 1st, 2008

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All Rise...

When his med school joke backfired, Appellate Judge Becker became known as Ghoul Hand Tom.

Editor's Note

Our review of Cool Hand Luke (Blu-Ray), published September 9th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

"Sometimes, nuthin' can be a real cool hand."

Opening Statement

"Hey, old man, you home tonight? Can you spare a minute? It's about time we had a little talk. I know I'm a pretty evil fellow. Killed people in the war and got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much, but even so, you've got to admit, you ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Old man, I gotta tell you, I started out pretty strong and fast, but it's beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do you got in mind for me? What do I do now?"
—Luke's prayer

Facts of the Case

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman, The Verdict) pulls a two-year hitch for cutting the heads off parking meters. He'll serve his time on a chain gang doing roadwork in Florida.

Being the new meat in this backwoods prison would be tough for any man. There are rules on top of rules, particular ways to address the guards, and the hierarchy of prisoners to get used to. For Luke, this is going to be especially hard—he's not someone who abides by any rules. As the captain of the prison (Strother Martin, True Grit) notes, Luke was an army veteran who received a number of honors—but got in so much trouble was discharged a private, the same rank he came in.

It takes some doing—including winning a bet by eating 50 eggs in an hour—but Luke eventually wins over his fellow inmates, particularly Dragline (George Kennedy, Death on the Nile), the nominal leader, a big, kind of dumb guy and a survivor. But even Dragline can't protect Luke from the guards, who are getting fed up with his attitude and start meting out punishments like keeping him locked in "the box" all night.

The other inmates see him as a world-shaker, a hell-raisin' guy who's maybe not so big, but who's tough and daring. They idolize him, and his exploits become legend—which is not what Luke wants. When the other men start living vicariously through him, he tells them to back off.

What Luke wants is out, and waiting two years is out of the question, so he tries to escape—frequently. But each time an attempt fails, his punishment is worse.

The captain and the guards are now out to break Luke. But can Luke be broken?

The Evidence

In Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman creates one of his most memorable characters. The actor is simply great as the charismatic, yet detached, Luke, whose evident disdain for authority and ability to be entertaining make him a favorite of the other inmates.

By 1967, Newman was in the second decade of his more than 50-year career. He had long ago established himself as an actor of amazing range and aesthetic bravery who never coasted on his remarkable good looks but used them to inform his characters. He took complex roles in ambitious projects such as Hud and The Hustler as well as lighter fare like Lady L and A New Kind of Love.

Luke Jackson was every bit as dark a character as Hud Bannon and Eddie Felson. The difference is that Luke seems to be far sunnier and more fun, at least at first. Luke comes across like a lunky good ol' boy, but once you get beneath his natural charm, you discover a troubled, confused man.

Newman wisely plays Luke as a bit inscrutable; we—and the other characters—never really get to know him. We get some clues about him from his dying mother (Jo Van Fleet, in an absolutely perfect bit), who visits him to say goodbye, to tell him that she still loves him best, and to let him know that she is leaving her meager estate to his brother and nothing to him.

The sadistic captain understands Luke, too; perhaps he's seen other men like this, or maybe Luke was the man the captain might have become had he made different choices and his life had gone a different way. Certainly, the captain's most famous line—and one of the most famous movie lines of all time—"What we have here is failure to communicate," is as ironic as it is iconic. Luke fails to communicate with everyone; he knows what's expected of him, but he doesn't choose to do it. Orders, no matter where they're coming from, are not his thing.

Because of this, the other men view him as a hero, but there's really nothing heroic about Luke. He has an almost pathological need to be a wise-ass. This character is often described as a nonconformist but somehow, that just doesn't seem right. Technically, it's accurate, but nonconformists follow their own paths regardless of what others think; Luke's path is based completely on what others think.

Luke is a faker and a fraud. He has no loyalties. His self-defeating masochism is no more admirable than Dragline's determined obedience, but it's sexier and more interesting to watch. Dragline might not be as smart as Luke, or as resourceful, but he gets it. "They're reasonable men," Dragline says of the guards, ignoring the cruelty he sees every day.

In lesser hands, neither of these characters would be palatable, but Newman and Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his work, turn in outstanding performances, finding the hearts and souls of these men.

Cool Hand Luke was only the second feature for director Stuart Rosenberg, who'd worked in television for years prior. I wasn't familiar with Rosenberg, but he has an interesting little resumé, including Pocket Money, The Drowning Pool (both with Newman), and The Laughing Policeman. He keeps Cool Hand Luke nicely balanced; the film swings effortlessly between scenes of great fun and disturbing depictions of brutality.

Rosenberg assembled an amazing cast to play the guards and inmates. In addition to Newman, Kennedy, and Martin, we get Harry Dean Stanton (Two-Lane Blacktop), Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet), Wayne Rogers (M*A*S*H), Anthony Zerbe (The Young Riders), Ralph Waite (The Waltons), and Morgan Woodward (Dallas) as a terrifying guard who stays behind his mirrored shades and lets his gun talk for him.

When it was released in 1967, Cool Hand Luke was a huge hit. Even though Newman was well past the cut-off age for "youth," young people identified with the film's anti-authoritarian character. For the artsy crowd, the film was filled with symbolism and references that were open to interpretation and discussion. Obviously, Luke versus the grotesque and repressive prison system represents the struggle of individualism versus the establishment; with the establishment depicted as truncheon-toting villains, it's a no-brainer as to which side to take.

For mainstream viewers—the bulk of the audience—Cool Hand Luke offered an accessible anti-hero. Not the threatening leather brute that was Marlon Brando's Johnny Strabler in The Wild One or the teens that made up Rebel Without a Cause, people could identify with Luke. He was your cousin or your brother-in-law or that guy you knew in school, fun to hang out with, good for a laugh, but not much else.

But in this case, he was Paul Newman, and that made all the difference.

Warner Bros. has put out some terrific special editions, including great, upgraded reissues such as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Wild Bunch, as well as more recent and impressive re-releases, such as Bonnie Clyde, the Dirty Harry series, and some Stanley Kubrick masterworks. This is the second release of Cool Hand Luke, billed as the "Deluxe Edition."

The image here is vastly improved over the previous release, a very good, letterboxed anamorphic transfer that does justice to Conrad Hall's beautiful cinematography. Audio is also cleaned up, though it's the original mono track. This might have used an upgrade if only to better showcase Lalo Schifrin's outstanding score (much of which has been co-opted over the years for other projects).

Besides a trailer, there are two extras: a feature-length commentary by Newman biographer Eric Lax and a 29-minute retrospective with input from the director, writers, and many cast members. The commentary is a spotty affair. When Lax is "on," he's great, interesting and informative; unfortunately, this only happens about half the time. Too often, there's dead air or Lax explaining what is happening on screen. The retrospective is good, though it does overlap some with the commentary. For a film as significant and beloved as Cool Hand Luke, I'm surprised that there's not more to this package.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

Cool Hand Luke works best as a kind of folk tale (which is really how the story ends up). Less successful, I believe, are its efforts to depict Luke as a Christ-like figure. If you look closely and keep your mind on it, you can find Biblical references galore, including a Pietà, a Judas encounter, and more crucifixion images than in a catechism. This is kind of fun and far less obvious than, say, The Matrix, but it ultimately feels forced and intrusive. The idea that Luke's anti-authority individualism made him a martyr to the system just strikes me as a bit too '60s precious.

Closing Statement

Like its protagonist, Cool Hand Luke is an original, a classic that holds up well and features a great performance by a screen icon. While the disc isn't as ambitious as some of Warner's recent efforts, it's a vast improvement over the previous release, an easy double-dip.

The Verdict

Not guilty, boss.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 85
Extras: 75
Acting: 100
Story: 90
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: Warner Bros.
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• English
• French
Running Time: 126 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Classic
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by Film Historian/Paul Newman biographer Eric Lax
• "A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke"
• Trailer


• IMDb

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