Paul Newman in 1967's Cool Hand Luke.
Having taken the heads off of a long row of parking meters, a drunken Lucas Jackson (Newman) is arrested and sentenced to a two-year sentence on a chain gang in Florida. He meets the Captain (Strother Martin) and his bevy of guards who keep their prison camp roster of 50 prisoners busy on the roads six days a week, but this camp has had nothing like Luke. Easy going enough early on in his sentence, he begins to bristle at being imprisoned, at being told what he's supposed to do. He becomes a hero to his other prisoners, forming a friendship with head honcho, Dragline (George Kennedy), but Luke can only take being held down for so long, and he wants out now.
Paul Newman is one of my all-time favorites, and this is HIS iconic part. Butch Cassidy, The Hustler, The Sting, and many others, all memorable roles, but nothing quite like this one. Want a face for a 1960s audience looking for something different? In steps Lucas Jackson, a man who has little regard for what society says he should do with his life, even less regard for any sort of authority hovering over him. Newman makes Luke -- dubbed 'Cool Hand' for a bluff in poker -- a charming, likable individual, his easy-going, natural smile disarming you in a second. We learn a lot about this character with little background (a veteran, countless jobs, a drifter), finding out that no one and no thing will slow him down. He will do things on his terms, and anyone else can be damned. Newman at his best.
With Newman's Oscar-nominated part at the head, 'Cool' has become one of the seminal movies of the late 1960s, ranking up there with The Wild Bunch, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde and several others I'm missing. This is a movie made for a late 1960s audience that isn't content with the status quo. No respect for authority or the so-called 'system'? Check. An anti-hero that wants to do things and live his life his way? Double check. The system are Martin's quiet but intense Captain, Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), the silent guard who wears his ever-present aviator glasses, along with steely-eyed Luke Askew, Richard Donner and John McLiam. The system is the villain here, imprisoning and breaking the individual down to conform. It's easy to see the appeal in 1967, and just as easy to see now 45 years later in 2012. The thinker, the free spirit, the intelligent rebel, it's an appealing character and premise to root for.
Because Newman's performance is so strong at the top, another part of the film gets lost in the shuffle, and that's the ensemble cast all around him from Martin and Kennedy to the guards to the prisoners. Martin is perfect in his few scenes, including muttering the iconic 'What we have here is failure to communicate.' Kennedy won an Oscar for his part as Dragline, an illiterate but intelligent and fast-talking prisoner who all the other prisoners look up to. Newman and Kennedy play off each other impeccably, the subtle, underplayed Luke with the showier, aggressive and funny Dragline. Other prisoners include J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite, Joe Don Baker, Dick Davalos and Buck Kartalian among others. Clifton James and Anthony Zerbe are good as prisoners turned associates who help the guards.
Like any movie that lives on so many years after its release, there's got to be something to make it memorable, and director Stuart Rosenberg doesn't disappoint. The most obvious is Luke stating he can eat 50 eggs in an hour, a classic sequence in its humor, but there's so much more. Luke singing Plastic Jesus -- watch HERE -- after receiving some distressing news is an all-time great. There's Luke earning everyone's respect in a brutal, knock-down boxing match (watch HERE), refusing to go down even when he's beat. There's a teenager washing a car, driving the on-looking prisoners wild (HERE), and up there with Plastic Jesus for the most moving scene, Luke talking with his dying mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet). Almost scene-to-scene is aided by composer Lalo Schifrin's amazingly spot-on music, especially the main theme which you can listen to HERE.
What struck me most in my latest viewing was the darkness of the story. The first hour is generally light-hearted, introducing characters, backgrounds and interactions, setting us up by liking Newman's Luke so much in spite of his bullheaded stubbornness. I'd forgotten then how intensely dark and at times uncomfortable the second half of the movie is. From the start, we know Luke is heading down a bad road, but that unbearable tension and impending sense of doom keeps building. The movie still has its lighter touches -- Luke's escapes provide some unlikely humor -- but there will not be a truly happy ending here. In the end though, one of the final shots shows that free spirits might not always win, but that also doesn't mean the system, authority and power positions will win either. The symbolism can be a little obvious, a little heavy-handed, but the message still strikes a chord.
A classic from beginning to end. End of story.
Cool Hand Luke <---trailer (1967): ****/****