Judge Clark Douglas is a wild, beautiful thing; a crazy handful of nothin'.
Our review of Cool Hand Luke, published September 1st, 2008, is also available.
The man…and the motion picture that simply do not conform.
"What we've got here is failure to communicate."
Facts of the Case
Luke (Paul Newman, Nobody's Fool) is a cool customer. He seems to be, anyway. Nothing ever seems to bother Luke. Why doesn't anything get under this guy's skin? Does he fear anyone or anything? What kind of man would go around cutting the tops off of parking meters because he had nothing better to do? That's exactly what Luke did, and now he's going to have to do two years of prison time because of it. Well, it's two years if Luke behaves. Behaving isn't Luke's strong suit. Put a wall up in front of the guy, and odds are he's going to try to jump over it. Never mind that, he'll try to run through it. It's that kind of unshakable anti-authoritarian attitude that makes Luke so popular with the other inmates, particularly a slightly dense fellow named Dragline (George Kennedy, The Naked Gun). A lot of the guys think that Luke's laid-back style of defiance will eventually kill him. Luke doesn't plan to change a thing about himself, and the guys wouldn't want him to. How long can Luke keep turning nothing into a cool hand before life breaks him?
Wow, this is a rough film. It had been a while since I had seen Cool Hand Luke, but I had forgotten what a punishing emotional experience it is. Nonetheless, it's easy to look back on the film as being something quite fun and entertaining. Sad, sure, but with a lot of smiles and laughs along the way. Why does this movie seem so enjoyable to so many people? I imagine it has everything to do with Paul Newman's pitch-perfect portrayal of Luke. This guy seems to have some sort of instinct that drives him to defy anything standing in his way no matter what the cost. The consequences are sometimes slightly amusing (consider the famous scene in which Luke eats 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour), but typically painful and brutal. Yet somehow, the vigorous enthusiasm and charm Newman injects into each new act of defiance keeps convincing us (and the men around Luke) that this guy is just plain cool.
In all honesty, to watch Cool Hand Luke is to witness a man belligerently driving himself to doom. Luke knows that his actions will have consequences. When he runs away from prison, he is quickly found, dragged back, and punished severely. There is no reason to suspect that the results won't be worse the next time around. Luke goes ahead and runs again anyway. It's in his blood, he has to do it, and he can't seem to understand why God won't let him get away with it. It's not something he plans to do. As he tells Dragline, "I never planned a thing in my life." We can see exactly where Luke is headed, and so can he.
It would be very easy to view Luke as a stubborn idiot, but Newman makes it impossible to root against him (a quality he brought to a number of complex roles over the course of his career). We really like Luke and want him to succeed in his quest to defeat…well, to defeat just about everything. The inmates really like Luke and rally around him. Some might even say he gives them some form of new hope, a certain salvation from their otherwise dreary lives. The spiritual implications of that are not unintentional; the film does just about everything possible to convince us that Luke is supposed to be some sort of Christ figure. Did God place Luke in this role, or is Luke entirely responsible for his own actions? That's impossible to answer for certain; the film seems to hint that it could be one way or the other. Or both, for that matter.
If we like Luke, then Dragline just plain loves Luke. He's a little skeptical at first, but after a while, the guy is nothing short of head-over-heels in love with his new hero. His excitement reaches feverish levels whenever Luke accepts a new challenge. Luke may be a hero of all the men, but that's largely because Dragline manages to raise the theatrical value of everything with his frantic spin. He simply can't contain his feelings for the guy: "Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'." Dragline's purpose is to elevate Luke to the level of folk hero, and that's exactly what he does. Note what happens to Luke during the film's conclusion, and then note the way Dragline portrays it in the story he tells. It's easy to see why George Kennedy won an Oscar for the role.
The acting is really quite superb all across the board. In addition to Newman and Kennedy, a whole host of good character actors (J.D. Cannon, Harry Dean Stanton, Lou Antonio, etc.) fill out smaller roles as the prisoners. Strother Martin is the man who gets to deliver the film's most famous line about failing to communicate, but he also nails every other line in the movie. In a film that often centers around failed communication, there are several interesting bits from actors who never speak. Morgan Woodward lets his sunglasses and rifle do all the talking as the sinister Boss Godfrey, while Dennis Hopper creates a character out of nothing more than unintelligible mumblings. Oh, and how can we forget Joy Harmon's brief turn as "The Girl." She offers up one of cinema's more memorable car-washing scenes (right up there with The French Connection II) and manages to excite Dragline nearly as much as Luke does. Finally, special mention should be made of Jo Van Fleet as Luke's mother. It's a good thing she only has one scene; any more and she surely would have stolen the film.
Tech credits are just superb all across the board here. The great Conrad Hall provides some cinematography that is just plain gorgeous, creating a film that is always a pleasure just to look at. It's yet another element that softens the dark and brutal nature of this film. The hi-def transfer here spotlights Hall's work beautifully. What a gorgeous transfer this is, by the way. It's such a clean, vibrant-looking film in hi-def. I honestly wasn't expecting something quite this sharp. Well done, Warner Brothers. Another strong element is Lalo Schifrin's memorable score, which provides a blend of traditional orchestral scoring and bluegrass material to terrific effect. It doesn't quite get the level of enhancement here that Hall's work received, because we're still working with the original mono track. Still, sound is decent enough.
Warner Brothers is a little lighter on the extras than usual for a film of this caliber, only providing a commentary with Newman historian Eric Lax and a half-hour making-of documentary. Still, both supplements are solid, particularly the documentary. One major drawback: I'm sorry to report that Paul Newman doesn't participate at all.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I concur with Appellate Judge Tom Becker that the religious elements of the film aren't particularly successful. While I do find the idea of Luke as a Christ figure somewhat intriguing, there are way too many spiritual red herrings thrown around here. There's some sort of hidden symbolism around every corner, but I get the despairing sense that trying to piece them all together in a coherent manner would be an incredibly challenging task. It's not really necessary, and more often than not seems distracting rather than thought-provoking.
Cool Hand Luke is one of the iconic films of the 1960s, and it has held up very well over the past four decades. Spotlighting one of Paul Newman's great performances and boasting terrific work from almost everyone else involved, this is definitely a film you need to check out. A top-drawer hi-def transfer should seal the deal, if you need even more convincing. A must-see.
Not guilty. No one involved with this film has to spend a night in the box.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary w/Eric Lax
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