Cool Hand Luke (1967)    3 Stars

“He was a cool customer. . .until the law made it hot for him!”

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin

Synopsis: A man refuses to conform to life in a rural prison.

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Luke (Paul Newman), the coolly laid-back anti-hero of Cool Hand Luke, is something of an enigma. We first meet him one drunken night lopping the heads of parking meters. He works alone, and earns great satisfaction from it. The police who find him slumped against one of the decapitated meters aren’t so impressed. We’re given clues to Luke’s past, but they don’t really fill in too many blanks. He’s a decorated war veteran who was demoted through the ranks, which suggests a problem with figures of authority — which is nothing unusual for this kind of movie. Luke’s rebellion is relatively benign, which means it’s ok to like him. Other than that, and a brief but pivotal visit from his dying mother (Jo Van Fleet), which reveals he was a difficult kid who always did things the hard way, we are told very little about Luke’s past.

Luke is sentenced to two years on a chain gang. The prison in which he is interred is pretty basic, but it doesn’t seem too bad; the regime is strict but not brutal — as long as you don’t step out of line. Luke is placed in a barracks with 49 other prisoners. King of the pile of this enforced fraternity is Dragline (George Kennedy), who treats all newcomers with suspicion. Naturally, it isn’t long before he and Luke are pulling on the boxing gloves and taking swings at one another. The other prisoners gather around to watch, cheering on Dragline as he repeatedly fells the increasingly exhausted Luke. But their cheers are slowly stilled by Luke’s dogged insistence on getting back on his feet each time he’s knocked down, and his stubborn courage earns the respect of his fellow inmates.

The plot of Cool Hand Luke seems pretty aimless at times, but it is all going somewhere if you’re patient. A sequence of classic scenes, familiar even to those who haven’t seen the film keep us watching as the film meanders along: the aforementioned boxing bout, the busty blonde washing her car, the egg-eating, and the ingenious methods Luke uses to foil the pursuing hounds when he first escapes. To the perceptive viewer it slowly becomes obvious that we’re watching not just a simple tale of prisoners and their guards, but an allegory of the life of Christ. Luke’s prison number is a covert reference to Luke 1:37 — ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’ When he consumes 50 eggs for a bet, Dragline, who, like the other prisoners, has effectively become a ‘disciple,’ berates him for setting the bar so high, asking why he didn’t say 30 or 39 eggs — 39 is the number of lashes Pontius Pilate is widely believed to have given Jesus. After successfully consuming the final egg, Luke is filmed from above in a position that resembles the crucifixion.

The role of Luke required an actor with an enormous amount of charisma, and it’s unlikely that any other actor could have pulled it off the way that Newman does. His sheer likeability ensures that we can’t help but side with him and share his pain. Director Stuart Rosenberg creates a believably sweaty atmosphere, with the action taking place under a stifling and unremitting sun and on a sun-scorched earth. The scenes of the toiling prisoners watched over by their guards have a laconic quality to them that has you feeling the strength-sapping heat of that merciless sun. Given its subtext, the film’s conclusion is sad and haunting. As a kid, I watched this movie and liked it for Luke’s free-wheeling nature. As an adult I like it for its undertones of tragedy and inevitability. The spirit can soar, the film tells us, but at an awfully high price.

(Reviewed 2nd August 2012)