Historical Circuit: Paul Newman is Scorching in 1967’s ‘Cool Hand Luke’

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Paul Newman as Luke Jackson
Warner Bros and Seven Arts’ 1967’s “Cool Hand Luke”

TITLE OF FILM: “Cool Hand Luke”
FILM YEAR: 1967
DIRECTOR: Stuart Rosenberg
WRITER: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson
STARRING: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper

SYNOPSIS:

It is the middle of the night, and Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) stumbles along an empty street. Luke has been drinking and is cutting parking meters off their poles. After Luke is arrested, he is sentenced to two years of hard labor on a chain gang in Florida.

In prison, the rules are strict and the wardens unforgiving. The men work all day on the sides of roads and freeways cutting weeds, clearing gutters and laying gravel. After each long, hot day, they come back to a dodgy wooden structure with rows of bunk beds to rest up for the next day’s labor. For every indiscretion made, “the box” is waiting. The box is an outhouse of sorts with very little room and limited light and ventilation.

At first, Luke’s presence is met with trepidation. Luke seems to be made of nothing but trouble, and his fellow prisoners want nothing to do with him. But as Luke pushes the boundaries, picks fights and makes outlandish bets, the men fall in love with his act. Through Luke, prisoner patriarch Dragline (George Kennedy) and the other members of this chain gang begin to live again.

OBSERVATIONS:

Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke”

I had never seen “Cool Hand Luke” before last week. The film had always been on my “Must Watch” list, but for some reason evaded me until now. The film opens with Luke cutting off the heads of parking meters. Immediately, I wanted to know why. In my mind, there would be a huge revelation behind his actions. But this film follows its own course, and it is a slow burn. As the audience gets to know Luke they become privy to the fact he has simply had a “nothing special” life, and he does not care.

A lot of Luke’s life is still a mystery by the film’s end. There is one scene where we get to meet his dying mother (Academy Award winner Jo Van Fleet), who affirms him as her favorite son. Just like his mother and his fellow prisoners, Luke becomes the audiences’ favorite too. Luke is fearless. He is a decorated Korean War veteran and pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable. He is also a recluse, but he thrives when placed front and center.

The characterization of Luke as a “cool hand” is loaded with inferences. He is constantly setting himself up for failure. Luke says he can eat fifty eggs in one hour. “Why’d you have to say fifty for? Why couldn’t you say thirty-five or thirty-nine?” Dragline asks. To which Luke replies, “It seemed a nice round number.” Luke fights against those twice his size and jokes with serious men. He eyes escape with nothing and no one to escape to. Luke bets big with nil in his hand. Sometimes he wins and sometimes he looses, thriving on uncertainty.

The character of Luke works so well because of Paul Newman’s fierce performance. Newman, a ten-time Academy Award nominee and winner for “The Color of Money” (1986), has such a presence on screen. He is handsome with his steely blue eyes and infectious smile, but he appears worn as well. The deep crows feet around his eyes, and his slightly hunched back are of a man who has seen a thing or two. Newman delivers his lines in a slow and steady fashion, giving off two apposing impressions, that what he says has both significant weight and is also frivolous, and he is definitely not repeating himself.

CULTURAL AND THEMATIC ANALYSIS:

Stuart Rosenburg directs with Donn Pearce (based on his novel) and Frank R. Pierson writing the screenplay for “Cool Hand Luke.” Pearce and Pierson’s script has an obvious anti-establishment theme coursing through it. The foremen at this chain gang prison rarely speak and they all answer to the same name- “Boss.” The prisoners must announce all of their actions. “Takin’ it off, Boss.” “Gettin’ up, Boss.” “Putting’ it on, Boss.” Yes, they are prisoners, and their lives are not their own, but the story comes alive when the men begin to challenge authority. It is when they stop living in fear of “the box,” that they begin to extrapolate the little joy they can from their lives.

Luke is a savior to these men. Before his arrival, the prisoners would not dare cause a ruckus. They live their lives in physical, mental and emotional captivity. But Luke’s presence changes the whole dynamic. The men find that there is still fun, and therefore hope, to be had behind the wired walls.

RECEPTION TO THE FILM AT THE TIME:

Paul Newman and George Kennedy duke it out in “Cool Hand Luke”

Upon its release in 1967, critics had nothing but praise for “Cool Hand Luke.” New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote, “That traditional object of sorrow and compassion in American folk song and lore, the chain gang prisoner, is given as strong a presentation as ever he has has on the screen…”  A staff writer at Variety wrote, “Newman gives an excellent performance, assisted by a terrific supporting cast, including George Kennedy, outstanding as the unofficial leader of the cons who yields first place to Newman.”

The academy nominated the film for four Oscars – Best Music, Original Music Score (Lalo Schifrin), Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium (Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson), Best Actor (Paul Newman) and Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy). Kennedy won the Oscar.

COMPARISONS TO ANY MOVIES OF TODAY:

“Cool Hand Luke” is a true representation of its time, not only in its theme, but in its cinematic style. Comparison to a contemporary film is a tad challenging, but a film that comes to mind is 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” These two films are vastly different in many ways, but both involve a group of men sentenced to hard-labor on a chain gang.

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?” focuses on a mismatched trio’s (George Clooney, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro) time after they escape. Clooney’s Ulysses Everet McGill claims he is in search of buried treasure, when in actuality, he is on a mission to stop his ex-wife from remarrying. As “O Brother Where Art Thou?” barrels towards its conclusion, a series of vignettes beyond the prison play out in amusing fashion.

“Cool Hand Luke” is about the dream of the escape that never comes to fruition. Luke must create a life worth living within the barbed wire fences, and his attempts to escape simply give him something to occupy his time. On the other hand, Ulysses eyes his escape as the first step in achieving his goal. Both men stretch the truth and feed off of grandiose ideas, but Ulysses knows what he wants, while Luke does not. With such contrast between these two men and their stories, it bolsters the strength of each character that they both obtain unshackled souls when the credits roll.

WHY IT STILL RESONATES TODAY:

Paul Newman and the Rest of the Chain Gang

“Cool Hand Luke” came out in the midst of the Vietnam War. Before that time, the vast majority of Americans saw no need to question their leaders. If an answer was given to a query, the answer was accepted as truthful. My generation has grown up with a completely different mind set. We question everything. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, but one must admit the quest for answers and rationale are at the heart of every purposeful life.

There is a famous line from “Cool Hand Luke” summarizing the film’s resonance – “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Answers and reasons are not offered in this film. The rules simply are what they are, and life is what it is. As Luke and the other prisoners push back against the establishment, they may not always get what they want, but they feel more apart of the system that has them in shackles, and ultimately are freer men.

“Cool Hand Luke” is available free streaming on Netflix. It is available to buy/rent on Amazon Prime, Apple, PlayStation, Google Play, Youtube, VUDU and Microsoft.

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