Cool Hand Luke
Director: Stuart Rosenberg / Screenplay: Frank Pierson (from novel by Donn Pearson) / Editing: Sam Steen / DP: Conrad L. Hall / Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Paul Newman / George Kennedy / J. D. Cannon / Strother Martin / Jo Van Fleet / Clifton James / Morgan Woodward / Dennis Hopper / Harry Dean Stanton / Anthony Zerbe / Joy Harmon / Joe Don Baker / Ralph Waite
Sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand…
For my first review after a long spell away in Scotland, I thought I’d go with a classic pulled from my ‘box of shame’: Cool Hand Luke. After this first viewing, I can at last see why this picture’s endured for so long, for while the setting and character may have dated somewhat, its universal themes endure.
Adapted by Frank Pierson from a semi-autobiographical novel by Donn Pearce, ‘Luke’s transition to film originally began with Jack Lemmon cast as the lead, but after much consideration and on Lemmon’s recommendation, Paul Newman got the nod and Lemmon produced the picture.
The camera loves Newman and it’s easy to see why on the evidence here: with his piercing blue eyes and All-American, easy-going charm, he was destined to be a movie star. This was his third defining role of the Sixties following The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963) and here, we see more of his natural ‘actor’s intelligence’, where he extends his range beyond mugging for cheap laughs. This is solid material and under the calm stewardship of Director Stuart Rosenberg, Newman’s allowed to reach higher.
Prior to landing this gig, Rosenberg had forged a successful career directing shows for TV. Television remains a great proving-ground for Directors looking to move into features, as budgets and time are both usually in short-supply, so if a Director proves themselves here, it’s a valuable mark on the CV. As a result then, Rosenberg was tapped for ‘Luke and would go on to direct a string of workmanlike pictures through the Seventies and Eighties, including a total of four with Newman, though glancing at Rosenberg’s entry on IMDB reveals ‘Luke to be his creative & critical highpoint.
It’s as though he said everything he had to offer in his debut and left nothing behind for an encore…
Cool Hand Luke begins with a simple, stripped-down pizzicato string arrangement from Schifrin’s masterful score, as Newman decapitates a line of parking meters. It’s late at night and he’s refreshing his thirst with a beer: turns out that civic vandalism is thirsty work. Yet at the point when the cops turn up, Newman – who’s leaning against some of his handiwork – merely raises his beer in salute and starts laughing. It’s quite a statement and Director Rosenberg knows it, hence why he’s happy to cut things here and skip to Newman’s arrival at the ‘prison’: a low-security facility for men sentenced to work on a ‘chain-gang’. Meanwhile, all this is playing-out as the credits tick-by, with crisp editing by Sam Steen and culminates with a close-up of the mirror’d Ray-Bans of one of the guards, Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward in a virtually silent role he made his own).
It’s an iconic shot that caps a bravado sequence and it’s no surprise that Rosenberg’s name appears at that point. I’d have done the same if the title sequence of my first feature had turned out this well…
Already then, we have questions. First and foremost: Why is Newman laughing? Was he an escaped prisoner tired of life ‘on the outside’ or just a prisoner of his own life-story and tired of the responsibilities of freedom? Maybe he was laughing from relief that in being caught, his life will now change and those same responsibilities will fall away… Or, maybe, he was just bored and felt like doing it and the laughter is his reaction to being caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Whatever the truth, it’s an ambiguous, powerful opening statement and sets the tone for what’s to come.
Newman’s one of four fresh faces to arrive at the prison gate and answers to the name of Lucas Jackson. So far, so normal prison fayre. The newcomers are greeted by Strother Martin’s Captain. A great character actor with a distinctive ‘squeaky’ voice, Martin brings a heightened level of menace to the role of Captain. In his seersucker shirt and khakis, Captain is a peevish would-be Southern Gent, yet is tied to the institution he runs as much as any guard or inmate. I think Captain wants a quiet life. The film doesn’t let us see beyond his bungalow’s porch, but I imagine he’s reached this particular station in life having proven himself a ‘safe pair of hands’; maybe he too was once a guard – a ‘boss’ as they’re referred to in the film – and studied a little of the law & penal code to get this far. He’ll probably go no further, but it’s enough for him to stay there as long as he can and he’ll do whatever it takes to assure that outcome: and that’s what makes him so dangerous.
Inside the communal barrack-like hut, are bunks enough for fifty men, with a permanent rotating guard, who’s chicken-wire enclosure within the place, makes them as much a prisoner as those around him. There’s also a floor-walker by the name of Carr, who’s played by the out-sized Clifton James. As he walks the room, Carr lists the various rules that prisoners must obey, the transgression of any seems to lead to a ‘night in the box’, though at this stage we’re left wondering what that might be.
From the get-go, Luke distances himself from the established crowd and its de-facto leader Dragline, played by George Kennedy in his only Oscar-nominated (and winning) performance. I last saw Kennedy in Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and I commented in my review, how that film allowed him to swerve away from his usual role of generic ‘heavy’. I’ll go still further here and suggest that Rosenberg cast him as Dragline having been impressed at his reinvention in Phoenix and convinced he could carry a movie.
Entirely possible, wouldn’t you say?
Rosenberg takes his time in Act One, covering the chain gang’s daily, monotonous grind. We get a sense of the sultry humidity of the Deep South, even if, as it turns out, much of the picture was actually shot in California. And all the while, Schifrin’s score is held back from dominating the mise-en-scéne Rosenberg’s going for; a goal helped enormously by DP Conrad Hall, who opts to shoot much of his coverage around ‘Golden Hour’, lending a burnished gleam to both locations and cast; especially when they peel off their shirts as they cut grass verges and clear ditches. Its warm, enveloping tones remind me of Billy Williams’s work for On Golden Pond (1981) or Malick’s Days of Heaven (1979).
I’d actually go further in my commendation of Hall’s work on ‘Luke, as he’s unafraid of making bold choices. Aside from the warm palette, and his close-up on Boss Godfrey’s shades, Hall lights the interior of the hut with pockets of illumination from a string of bare lightbulbs and, it seems, little else. There might be a phalanx of studio lights filling-in for all I know, but it looks damn fine.
Then there’s ‘The Box’. One of the newcomers falls foul of a practical joke and after earning the ire of the guards, he ends up in a wood & stone cubicle about the size of an old phone box; of insufficient size to allow someone to lay down.
You just know it won’t be long, before our boy gets to try it out for size…
Before then, we get blonde bombshell Joy Harmon out to wash her car and, from their vantage point on the roadside, the men ogle her as she soaps-up and strikes (deliberately) provocative poses. Luke, it seems, is the only one who can see through her and is content to work on alone because of that. Later, as predicted, there’s a scuffle led by Dragline, who’s now fixated on his vision of the girl, whom he now calls ‘Lucille’ and on to whom he now projects his own idealised desires/memories from a time before his incarceration. Luke asks him to stop the fantasy, given it’s pointless, forgetting that for some, such fantasies are all that gets them through. As a result, a fight is scheduled (‘Sundays is when we air our grievances’).
On the appointed day, the men form a wide circle around Dragline & Luke and, with boxing gloves on, they begin jabbing. It’s soon pretty clear that Luke either can’t – or won’t – offer much resistance and is soon knocked-down: yet he continues to rise, Lazarus-like each time Dragline puts him down. Eventually tiring of the spectacle, men leave the scene until it’s left to Dragline himself to tell Luke to stay down. When this advice isn’t heeded, Dragline then leaves the yard and Luke, who’s still standing, bruised, bloodied yet unbroken. It’s a galvanising moment for Luke as it defines his attitude for the rest of the picture (summed up in one word as ‘unbeaten’) and makes a true believer out of Dragline: quite a feat, given we’re forty minutes in at this point and Newman’s had less than a page of dialogue!
Thus far, screenwriter Pierson has been giving us a masterclass in doing more with less. To quote Luke from a later scene: ‘Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand…’ Indeed.
Now we get a visit from Luke’s mother, Arletta. Evidently infirm, she’s laid out in the back of a pick-up, under a gauzy tarpaulin, from where she expresses her enduring bond with her favourite, albeit wayward, son. As she puts it: ‘The bitch don’t recognise the pups no more. She don’t have no love or hopes to give her pain. She just don’t give a damn’. The restraint in the writing here is remarkable, as is the understated delivery from both actors. Jo Van Fleet imbues Arletta with a taut fragility to match Newman’s. Here are two people who’ll not meet again once they part. It’s supposed to be difficult, especially given their reunion is conducted under the constant gaze of the guards. Rosenberg gives both players time and space to find these natural reactions. As Luke walks away, his brother hands him a banjo with the bitter phrase ‘Now there’s nothing for you to come back for’. Wow. He’s washing his hands of their bond; perhaps saddened at what’s happened to his older brother: a decorated war hero, yet someone drifting through life, unable to adjust to civilian life. It’s a devastating exchange for all that is left unsaid, as much as what is.
Such alienation from society following military service is a common theme in pictures from Forrest Gump (1994) to Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and again, I think it’s no coincidence that the picture arrived when it did, at a time when the scars of the Korean War were still raw in the minds of many and Vietnam was entering its bloodiest phase. Viewed in that context, Luke might be seen as a sufferer of PTSD: his rootless lifestyle & the very antisocial act that led him to jail in the first place, might very well reflect his internal journey and suffering. I’m forever amazed at just what can be inferred beyond mere words on a page…
Act Two begins with a scene where the convicts have to shovel gravel onto a freshly tarmac’d road. It’s a task that usually takes the gang a full day to complete, but Luke turns it into a competition between the gangs on each side of the road, with the result they finish two hours ahead of schedule. When asked by Dragline ‘What do we do now?’, Luke replies simply ‘Nothing’. He’s found a way of playing the system. The task was intended to grind them down over a full day, but in ‘beating it’, has Luke now made things harder? Won’t the guards now expect the same degree of effort all the time? Just a thought…
The second iconic scene of Act Two, involves Luke eating fifty hard-boiled eggs over the course of an hour, for a bet. ‘Why fifty?’ asks Dragline, to which Luke replies ‘It seemed a nice, round number’. Whilst watching this play out, it occurred to me, that one of the tropes of the ‘Prison Movie’ genre, is to see men (invariably men) able to ‘be’ men without having to strut and bellow for the ladies (the car washing scene notwithstanding), yet whether they’re in the army, prisoners-of-war or simply in jail, it requires a loss of freedom to achieve.
The Sixties saw a lot of movies exploring the same territory because the USA had a generation of middle-aged men with war experience (and, thanks to Vietnam, it was grooming a whole bunch more), who by then, were re-living their ‘glory days’ out on civvy-street and embraced pictures that held a mirror to those memories and experiences. If the prison in this film seems quaint now (like a VSO assignment but with more barbed wire), it’s because we live in a different era. Our problems, whilst broadly similar, seem magnified, somehow.
I digress. The egg sequence plays-out to a tableau, in which the victor luxuriates by laying on a table. As simple as that. Shot from above, Newman’s pose is a ringer for Caravaggio’s vision of Christ; all Rosenberg needs to complete the allusion, is a cross and a crown of thorns, but gives Luke a bed of crushed eggshells instead. Sure, it’s heavy-handed, but the image is as iconic as so many others in this picture.
Arletta’s death tips Luke from the comfort zone he’s made for himself. Now, he wishes to be somewhere else: and that brings its own complications, complete with spells in The Box. On returning Luke to the gang after another short-lived breakout, Captain delivers this famous line: ‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So, you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he get’s it. I don’t like it any more than you men.’
The line has taken on a life of its own, being quoted ad-nauseam by commentators of the film as well as fans of Guns ‘n Roses, who used it to open their track Civil War, but I would refer you to my earlier comments about Captain, as someone who’d likely risen from the ranks and yearns for a quiet life. You see, with this statement, he’s resigning himself to the inevitable; an understanding that, in order to restore ‘order’ – the harmony he so craves – Captain will be fierce in his crackdown of the unruly elements destabilising his placid existence; aided and abetted by the guards such as Boss Godfrey, who’s own positions are undermined every time Luke flouts their authority; their patient indulgence only stretches so far…
I’ll finish with a look at the overt religious symbolism Rosenberg packed into the film.
Consider first, Luke’s prison number: ‘37’. In the Bible, Luke 1:37 reads ‘For with God, nothing is impossible’. Then there’s the aforementioned ‘crucifixion’ pose atop the table and the defiance shown in Luke’s reanimation during the fight, that’s echoed later when he falls into a grave he’s dug for himself, only to ‘rise again’. There’s even a good friend who betrays him in the end, to save his own skin… I’m sure there are many, many more than this brief selection, so please contact me if you spot something. Maybe Rosenberg was so carried away at the very idea of incorporating such allusions, that he doubled-down on them; or maybe they were in Pierson’s script? Either way, there are so many religious allusions that I felt overwhelmed in the end; brow-beaten at their lack of subtlety.
Other problems? Luke needs an interior dimension to fully-round out his character. Aside from the brief exchanges with his mother & brother and a few comments made about his war record, we know nothing about him or what drove him down this path in the first place. Arguably, the picture stands as it is, but surely an allegorical work about a Christ-like figure (as this is), needs some context behind it, otherwise it’s little more than a ‘prison movie’: a simplistic characterisation I think it’s trying to transcend from the opening shot.
Luke wasn’t born for these times. He’s an ageless, Sisyphean character who’s burdensome task is showing others how to live with honour & dignity (the irony isn’t lost that, in order to do just that, he had to commit a crime in the first place). But the odds in this game are stacked against him. He’ll never win. Only freedom from the system into which he was born, which he served and which, ultimately, consumed him to preserve the body-politic, will give him peace.
Society only functions when all its tall poppies are cut-down to preserve its outlook…
The film appeared in 1967, in-time to serve as an undercurrent to ’The Summer of Love’ and remains a jewel in Warner Bros. catalogue. It gave early showcases to a number of actors who’d go on to enjoy successful careers in their own right, among them Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper. It also featured three actors who would all feature prominently in various Bond movies: bet you can’t name them?!
More than all that, it remains a jewel in the Paul Newman’s filmography. During its filming, he remarked to a friend: ‘There’s a good smell about this. We’re gonna have a good picture.’
Can’t say fairer than that.
All you got to do is give up. Nice and quiet.
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