Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

Paul Newman died this weekend, and if you were to name, say, five of the most well-regarded and legendary movie stars of all time, he’d surely make that list on notoriety alone.  The amount of Newman movies I’ve seen is paltry and frankly embarrassing, so clearly this must be rectified to honor this screen legend 😉 .  For the next week or two, most if not all of the films I watch will star Paul Newman so that I can get a grasp on what made this man and his knack for acting so admired and loved by so many for decades.  So, why not start with perhaps his most famous role? 

“Cool Hand Luke” is famous for a lot of things, namely the egg-eating challenge, the “failure to communicate” line (# 11 on AFI’s list of the 100 greatest movie quotes of all-time) and the cruel, cruel treatment endured by maverick prisoner Luke at a Southern work prison.  Even if you haven’t seen the movie, you know of these things.  But once you have seen it?  Well, that’s when they all come together as a whole, big-time, to nearly abandon a typical plot structure and a sense of comfort.  Watching this, you can feel the sweltering heat and the pure discomfort of the sweaty, dirt-covered prisoners.  You feel their sense of hopelessness-turned-optimism once Luke arrives, their hatred for the cruel Bosses, and the sheer exhaustion of the martyr-like Luke.  One thing “Cool Hand Luke” ain’t is a pleasant filmwatching experience.  It puts you right in the shoes of those having to live in one of the most uncomfortable places imaginable, faced with constant physical and emotional exhaustion.  In other words, it’s a damn good movie.

Such an “unpleasant” and uncomfortable movie’s a tough sell for audiences, so the entirety of its success rides on Paul Newman’s shoulders.  Like Luke’s nonstop torture via physical workload, Newman had to carry this movie on his back by bringing out the gamut of emotions in the audience: empathy, disgust, pity, admiration – you name it, Newman had to emote it.  And from the very first moments, he gets off to a hell of a start.  When you think of great movie entrances, you think of Orson Welles in “The Third Man” or Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West or Barbara Stanwyck in “Double Indemnity.”  Well, I’d add Paul Newman’s Luke, drunk and knocking off parking meters, right to that list.  Here’s a guy we’re seeing for the very first time, drunk off his ass and with the audacity to walk amongst rows of parking meters that are standing at attention (kind of like the chain gang he himself will be a part of later on? 😉 ) and destroying them, right out in the open (albeit at night).  Who is this stupid, stupid man, we ask ourselves.  But then, once he’s caught, and we see that unmistakable Paul Newman grin, stupidity becomes boldness, and inebriation becomes absolute charm.  From the get-go, Luke as compelling anti-hero has us hook, line and sinker.

We like Luke, and his fellow prisoners just about worship him, but they and we sure as hell don’t understand him.  In fact, Luke might just be one of the great enigmatic protagonists that I’ve ever seen at least.  And much of that is a testament to the sheer punishment that Luke, and Paul Newman, goes through.  For much of “Cool Hand Luke,” I’d say that Newman doesn’t even act – he endures.  So much of this performance involves him digging trenches until he collapses under his own weight, being kicked by the Boss when he’s down, downing fifty eggs until he’s at the point of passing out, and trying time and time again to effect an escape, chained, through brush and stream and mounds of dirt.  The great question of “Cool Hand Luke” is, why does Luke willingly put himself through such physical and emotional strain?  Is he just stubborn?  Is he a sadist?  A martyr?  Logic would dictate the latter, through both visual symbolism like Luke lying on his back like Jesus on the crucifix following the egg ordeal, or the philosophical implications of the other prisoners basically becoming his disciples as the cruel Bosses do indeed turn this role model of steadfastness into a martyr-like figure.  Religious symbolism is all over the place in this movie, culminating with Luke’s final monologue in the abandoned church, but to try to examine just the man himself is a fascinating ordeal in and of itself. 

At any given moment, Luke will be obstinately deadpan while playing poker or mentally prepping himself to eat fifty eggs, or reduced to hysterical tears when he can’t take the abuse anymore (or at least we’re led to believe he can’t take it), or silent and expressionless when he refuses to stay down in a fight against the bigger and stronger Dragline, or gracious yet laconic when talking to his dying mother, or near-crazed and defiantly exuberant in one last showdown with the bosses.  He’s an absolute blank slate who, in all likelihood, rarely if ever shows his true colors (as we see in a great and exciting full-180 near the end involving a stolen truck).  Except, though, for my favorite scene in the entire film, after he’s learned of a family tragedy.  On one side of the screen, we see Luke sitting on his bunk, and on the other, off in the distance, we see the other prisoners, huddled together watching this enigma of a man as he plays the banjo and sings “Plastic Jesus.”  Suddenly, the prisoners become awfully generic and uniform.  They’re in a whole different universe from the elusive and conflicted Luke – the performances show it, and the excellent staging of the scene shows it.  It’s just one moment in a whole movie’s worth of action (not dialogue)-driven raw emotion where a simple song, a banjo, and a tear rolling down Paul Newman’s face lets us, for once, see through the many masks of Luke.  In an absolutely exhausting performance involving physical exertion to the point of near-torture, Newman even has room for quiet, pathos-driven moments like this, where the martyr indeed becomes a man worth pitying, or admiring.

Paul Newman goes through the gauntlet in giving a physical, torturous performance, and the director, Stuart Rosenberg, certainly goes through just as much of a gauntlet to make the setting around Luke feel like a torturous Hell.  So much of the outstanding cinematography by the great Conrad Hall gets way up close and far too personal with the prisoners.  You’re gonna see about as much skin in “Cool Hand Luke” as you’ll ever see, as we get right in on every sweaty torso caked with crusted dirt and feel the arid heat of the ditch they’re digging or the cramped living quarters.  You’ll be just as cramped and aching as Luke as he spends days in “The Box” as he shuffles his feet to prevent cramping.  You’ll feel the collected breath and body heat of all the guys as they huddle around Luke in his epic quest to eat fifty eggs without puking and every punch that Luke’s nemesis-turned-devoted confidant Dragline lays on him, the camera getting right in on these two brawlers.  There’s the scene where the prisoners ogle the girl washing her car, as the camera subjectively hones in on every crevasse and pore of this girl and her skimpy outfit.  In the world of “Cool Hand Luke,” there’s no such thing as personal space, as everything seems desperately confined and imposing.  Sure, some images go over the edge of needless symbolism, like Luke taking the form of the crucified Jesus, or the final fate of the imposingly silent boss’s sunglasses.  That aside, though, few times before have I seen a camera so clearly trying to establish a particular point of view.  I was amazed at the absolute abundance of low-angle shots, as many of the bosses are introduced via their feet, and the whole way through many faces are obscured as figures of authority (and desire in the case of the girl) are made to look more imposing than they really are.  The sunglasses-wearing, silent “man with no eyes” is a case in point, reminding me of the overly-imposing cop in “Psycho” in representing the absolute in emotionless, cruel authority.  Sometimes the excess of low-angle shots or feet-shots were too much and made sections of the movie too stylized, sometimes they were perfect in establishing the hopeless “us vs. them” mentality of the prisoners versus the authority figures.  This is a movie that focuses not on the face, but on the body, in all of its sweaty, exhausted glory, as man is reduced to mere laborer.  The exception to this is, of course, Luke (what filmmaker in their right mind would avoid that iconic Paul Newman grin and blue eyes? :P).  His is the face that we need to see, as the other prisoners revere with bewilderment and admiration this unusual stranger who for some reason (perhaps unknown even to himself) refuses to conform. 

“Cool Hand Luke” may have been an unpleasant, exhausting look at crude men in squalid conditions, but it’s also an inspiring story of solidarity, as the prisoners throw themselves behind this unique, nearly indecipherable man, coming together in song as they support Luke in spirit as he endures physical hell (dying for the sins of others in true Christ-like fashion, perhaps? 😛 ).  I’m not sure I ever really got a grasp on what Luke was all about (I’m pretty sure the only person he actually has a failure to communicate with is himself), but I can see why he would cause such a stir in an otherwise hopeless set of poor saps in that prison.  As Dragline points out, Luke goes out with that “smile of his…that old Luke smile.”  It’s the same smile we see him wearing when we first see him knocking over those parking meters, and seeing it again when he brings about his final fate, everything comes full circle (even though the Paul Newman’s pretty face-centric montage that closes out the movie might be on the overly-sentimental side).  His motives might be impossible to figure out, but with that old Luke smile, he at least stays consistent and true to himself, and finally gets out of that damn place on his own terms.



3 comments so far

  1. Lauren on

    I can’t believe you can throw words like “maverick” around so casually.

    Great film, great man, great review. I did not expect to like it so much, but it lives up to its reputation. Enjoy your Newman retrospective!

  2. Simon M. on

    I was regretting using the word maverick as I was writing it 😆 . Somehow I don’t see McCain as having the Newman-like dastardly charm and charisma during that POW experience he loves to throw around.

  3. ShotgunAndy on

    Newman fucking rocks! Coolest man to ever set foot upon this Earth, hands down.

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