After taking a day or two off, let’s start the new year off right by reviewing a critically-acclaimed film starring one of Hollywood’s most celebrated actors, Paul Newman. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, 1967’s Cool Hand Luke is one of Newman’s most well-remembered roles (which is saying something, considering the number of great roles he had), and it’s currently #136 of IMDb’s Top 250. Luke himself made #30 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains list.
I’m a big fan of Paul Newman and of good crime pictures, so I knew I had to catch this film eventually; it’s one that’s been sitting on my “need to see” list for as long as I’ve had the list. It’s become part of the pop culture subconscious, so of course I already knew a few details about it, most particularly the line. You know the line. Everybody knows the line.
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”
Paul Newman plays Lucas Jackson as an easy-going non-conformist. He’s confident and competent, but seems pathologically unable to go along with society if he’s coerced in any way shape or form. We’re introduced to him with the iconic scene of him casually (and slightly drunkenly) going down a city street, cutting the heads off parking meters. He’s not stealing the heads for their money. It’s just vandalism. “Small town, not much to do in the evenin’,” he says. Later he amends it to say he was setting an old score, but he never elaborates on what sort of score he would be settling in said fashion. He’s arrested, and sentenced to two years in a prison work camp, which is where the majority of the film takes place.
Just another night on the town.
The camp is filled with 50 other criminals, most of whom it’s implied are in for similarly small crimes. The worst we hear of is a case of breaking and entering and assault; not exactly minor, but its downplayed as being of little interest. For the most part, we don’t hear what crimes in the inmates committed. This allows the audience to feel sympathy for the criminals, and antipathy to the guards, who are harsh and sometimes outright cruel. The Captain, played skillfully by Strother Martin, is the kind of person who fancies himself a Southern gentleman, but it’s a thin veneer and easily broken. He’s cheerful, even affable if things are going his way, but cross him and he’ll beat you with his cane. The “bosses” are worse, particularly Boss Godfrey, played with chilling dispassion by Morgan Woodward. The prisoners don’t mind making the occasional smart remark to some of the other bosses, and Carr (Clifton James), who is in charge of the bunk house, even plays along with some of their shenanigans. But they warn Luke away from “the man with no eyes”, as they call the sunglassed Godfrey.
By contrast, the prisoners are friendly after some initial arguments. The king of the hill is “Dragline”, played by George Kennedy, a big boisterous bruiser of a man who commands the respect of everyone else in the bunkhouse. He and Luke get into a fight, which Dragline wins handily, but he has to knock Luke unconscious to get him to quit fighting. Luke then impresses Dragline further by bluffing with no hand in a poker game; it’s here that Dragline gives him the nickname “Cool Hand”, and practically adopts him. From that point on, Luke can do no wrong in Dragline’s eyes and the irreverent, irrepressible non-conformist becomes a hero to all the inmates. Kennedy earned an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role, and I have to say he deserved to; Dragline is as vital a character as Luke, and is every bit as alive and entertaining. Newman was also nominated for an award, Best Actor, and the nomination was just as deserved (though having seen In the Heat of the Night, I can’t argue with Steiger receiving the award; but I wouldn’t have argued had it gone to Newman either.)
Possibly the cheeriest bunch of inmates until the Blues Brothers.
Luke, Dragline, and the others are a cheerful group of rakehells, always seeing what they can get away with in the limits of their captivity without being put in “the box” (a very confined bit of solitary confinement). But though Luke and Dragline are unquestionably comedic heroes, and there are occasional bits of comedy (such as the 50-egg bet), this isn’t a comedic film. It’s mostly a serious drama, and the use of an upbeat, mischievous character such as Luke as the protagonist actually strengthens the film. When he’s talking to his mother (Jo Van Fleet, in a fairly powerful scene) he comments that he’s always tried to live free and above-board, but can’t seem to pull it off. The line might have come off maudlin from a more somber character, or flippant in a less serious film; here, it simply has the quiet ring of truth. His personality doesn’t fit his life’s narrative; the comic hero is trapped in what is objectively a fairly dark storyline. Comic heroes don’t go to work camps, they don’t get beaten with the sure knowledge that there will be no repercussions for it. But through it all Luke remains himself, quietly defiant.
Though he understandably had a stomach ache after eating the eggs.
There’s a lot of religious symbolism in the film, some of it overt, such as Luke’s crucifixion-like pose after eating the eggs; some of it less so, such as his prisoner number, 37. Luke 1:37 reads “For nothing is impossible with God”, and Cool Hand Luke’s reputation in the film is that nothing is impossible for him. Ironic, perhaps, for a man who rails against the heavens multiple times in the film. (And in the interest of full disclosure, yes, I looked that passage up; I suspected some symbolism there, but wasn’t sure.) Ultimately, though Luke may not save the prisoners from their troubles, he gives them hope and optimism.
Cool Hand Luke is a well-directed film filled with downright superb performances from several of its actors. Besides those who received nominations, most of the speaking roles could have credibly received critical acclaim. And it tells a serious narrative with a decidedly light-hearted hero, and does so in such a manner that the only disconnect in tone is that which the director intended. It is, as its reputation says, a great film.