The late sixties were the revolutionary phase of American Cinema - angry, alienated characters bucked the system, broke the rules and strode down paths of indignant individuality that would become immortalised as iconic and trailblazing no matter what side of the fence you sat on. Bonne And Clyde won us over, despite a predilection for robbery and violence, with their sense of unconditional love and star-crossed romanticism. The Wild Bunch did almost the same thing, although their lyrical sense of macho bonding and reluctance to accept a new world that they were no part of was altogether rougher, bloodier and much more immediately anti-heroic. Dustin Hoffmann, in The Graduate, spoke for the millions who couldn't find the words yet, ironically, his rage against the system was more of a mumble, reinforcing the “outsider” gap between the disenchanted and the authority. 1967's Cool Hand Luke was born in the same gap of non-conformity, Paul Newman's titular character the existential personification of emotional displacement and societal shunning. Ex-con Donn Pierce, who also appears as a prisoner on the sidelines of the movie, wrote the original, meandering slice of eloquent yet baiting Americana as a part-time biography of his sentence spent on a Florida chain-gang. One third of Luke's character is made up, he says, whilst another is himself and the last third is based on a real inmate whose unflappable outlook on servitude and the grief it brought earned him the actual nickname of Cool Hand Luke. Paul Newman took on the role as a means to stretch himself, trying earnestly to fulfil the promise that he has always maintained that he is a “character actor” and not a star looking for vehicles in which to simply play himself.
I find this fascinating and ironic as I believe that the unbreakable, queerly aloof and reluctantly rogue Luke is exactly the embodiment of Newman's character to begin with.
Ex-war hero and bored booze-hound, Luke goes to Road Prison 36 after a harmless night of inebriated distraction spent twisting the heads off parking meters. The Deep South penal attitude, as served up by Strother Martin's drawling, lazy Captain and his clutch of sly guards - or Bosses, as they are called - can be played one of two ways. Do as you're told and just get on with it and things will be okay - repetitive and back-breaking for sure, but otherwise okay. But if you fail to get your head right - and Luke's free-spirited individualism is exactly the kind of unfathomable rebellion that will collide painfully with these good ol' boys' sense of power - it can only lead to reactionary violence and increasingly harsh tactics. But, no matter what vicious repercussions his actions bring, Luke is destiny-driven never to give up, never to quit sticking it back to the Man. And, like Monty Python's Brian, he inevitably becomes a messiah-figure to those who have nothing but a sheep-like, run-with-the-crowd inability to stand up for themselves.
“What we've got here ... is failure to communicate.”
Newman has a hurt look about him - half knowing, half guilty. I've always found this look and, consequently his persona in movies, to be cold and aloof, a little too arrogant to allow me to warm to many of his performances. Whilst still a justifiable screen superstar, his somewhat cool - as in detached rather than actually “cool” - style has always set him apart from the likes of his contemporaries. McQueen, as I have maintained in several other reviews, was and still is “cool” personified. Redford, with his all-American looks, sandy likeability and almost frightened intelligence was home-grown charm and sensitivity, through and through. Hoffman has been everything at one time or another, but is, basically, the quintessential character-actor that Newman has tried to be, rather than the film star that Newman ended up being. Several things contribute to this somewhat strange big screen mythology. Newman often appears introverted, yet smug. A loner, yet a celebrity with idolised cinematic looks and the sheer gravitas of an assured studio player, his sense of screen power and control has never been in question. Where McQueen invites empathy, Newman frosts up a wall that may be imperceptible to some yet still acts as a barrier to the same kind of audience acceptability that his eventual co-star in The Towering Inferno so effortlessly exudes. But, of all his roles - from Hud and The Hustler to John Rooney in Road To Perdition and Doc in Cars - Luke is the one that, I feel, most accurately presents the style and personality of the man, himself. Paul Newman was born to play this part. And he sure plays it with a Cool Hand.
There is tragedy here, but Newman's take on the part is evasive, smooth and untroubled. What little backstory that we get for him is fractured and unresolved, which is fitting as, before long, we, as well as those who come to idolise him, want to keep him pure and a force of nature, unclouded by the banalities and minutia of normal life. Newman brilliantly assumes such an out-of-phase mentality that Luke does, indeed, become a quasi-mythical figurehead for the disenfranchised.
And there is no mistaking the career-best performance from the ever-reliable George Kennedy, for which the hard-working loveable bear was granted a well-deserved Academy Award. As the excellently monikered Dragline, Kennedy bulldozes his way into your heart with a role that commences with threats and intimidation and culminates in tear-jerking sincerity and a simple love of life ... even one that is bound by leg-irons. All too often a part of an ensemble - just as he is here, in fact - Kennedy is like a rock in any film, from those Airport pictures and Earthquake to The Naked Gun, that provides the story, no matter how formulaic or risibly scripted it is, with a sense of gravity and conviction. Mistakenly viewed as a heavy, he is an incredibly versatile actor with heart, intelligence and dedication. Whilst that leading man role has always eluded him, the stars he has supported have gained considerable aplomb and confidence simply by virtue of his stalwart professionalism and presence. Dragline is the role that he will be forever remembered for, though. Never an overt bully, although his position as top dog is hardly in dispute, Dragline's distrust and fierce competition with new-boy Luke's ideology brings them into swift and brutal conflict. That he is won over by this bizarre and undefeatable personality is the heart-swelling centre-point of the movie. His referral to Luke as “my boy” - something that in other prison movies would have an altogether more unpleasant connotation - is wonderfully touching and the big oaf's actually gentle nature is the sentimental highlight of this sweltering drama. Also touching is how dumb and lost he is without Luke to guide him - a big tough guy at home in prison where the very rules that suppress him give him order and meaning, but a frightened lamb when on the loose and forced to think for himself. Kennedy is superlative and in a veritable sea of accomplished, and ongoing work, his portrayal of Dragline is as immortal as Newman's Luke. There's no way you can't be moved by his righteous fury at the end, either, as shocking and as bestial as it is.
The supporting cast that hovers around these two quietly huge performances is just as eclectic and exquisite. Marched in with Luke are none other than Pa Walton, himself, Ralph Waite as Alibi and Harry Dean Stanton as the string-plucking Tramp. But already incarcerated besides the mighty Dragline are the cheerily familiar faces of Anthony Zerbe's untrustworthy jailor's pet, Dog-Boy, Lou Antonio's Koko, Dennis Hopper's biblical gibberish-spouting simpleton Babalugats, Joe Don Baker's unnamed hanger-on and Marc Cavell's Rabbitt. A more colourful and easygoing selection of the grizzled, the confused and the leader-needing you couldn't wish for. That the entire ensemble gel so well together is another firm indicator of material so solid and a director so liberated that each actor can invest his character with soul as well as sweat-caked body, the crew pulling in one cohesive direction with a communal chemistry that is utterly undeniable. Unsurprisingly, the guards, as a result of this team-spirit existing beneath them, become precise and sharpened individuals eking-out a bogus existence as occasionally gurning deities wielding the rod simply because they lack the intelligence to do anything other than lash out when their world-order is challenged. However, these rifle-toting Bosses are not merely one-note goons designed to be despised. Morgan Woodward's silent, sunglass-wearing Boss Godfrey - as iconic a prison guard image as ever there was and mimicked in everything from Rambo: First Blood Part II and 48 Hrs to O Brother, Where Art Thou - may be a grimly expressionless, stoic-as-a-statue cliché, but his ever-watchful aura of intimidation actually sets him up as the complete opposite of Luke. Voiceless and personality-less, he is the soul-bereft automaton of a collapsed society that Luke so passionately fights against. And, in a clever about-face, it becomes obvious that these two nemesis actually need one another if they are ever to fulfil their ultimate ambitions. Familiar Western face Luke Askew's Boss Paul may be vicious and downright cruel when the time for such redneck lessons comes around, but there are limits to his regime and, even during the harrowing endless dig that Luke is forced to undertake, you get the impression that for every second that he enjoys watching his prisoner suffer, there are a good dozen more when he actually might be admiring the will and persistence of a man he cannot break. Many prison movies resort to the obvious role reversal of the inmates becoming the good guys and the screws the monsters, but Cool Hand Luke pays these conventions mere lip service because here, at least, it becomes apparent that these guards have absolutely no life of their own and their enslavement to the Road Prison is far more shackling than the sentences of prisoners, themselves.
Oh, and let's not forget the wondrous addition of the great Clifton James as Carr, the prison block floor-walker. James, one of those professional Southern sheriffs in movies such as Live And Let Die, Superman II and Silver Streak gives his customary flabby-jowled bluster with verbal swagger and a no-nonsense attitude that still manages to endear him to you. Whilst his rule-setting introduction, in which he lays down the law that every single misdemeanour, no matter how slight, earns the culprit a “night in the box”, may not be as humorous as his dim-witted yokel lawmen proliferating in later years, you can plainly see in which direction his career was headed.
“I know I got no call to ask for much... but even so, You've got to admit You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of them ... rules ... and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?”
Luke's simple begging for reasons from the Almighty, as quoted above, runs almost comically as Newman presents the moment. But, rewatching the scene in question - despite knowing the eventual answer Luke gets - reveals a horrible poignancy. Luke's big dumb grin - “That old Luke smile ...” as Dragline immortalises in rhapsody - actually hides a despair that finally reveals to us that Luke, himself, doesn't understand a damn thing about the human condition either. He doesn't know why he can't simply toe the line. He can't fathom just how and why his harmless attitude rankles the rule-makers so terribly. As much as Luke appears to give to his fellow inmates - attitude, a sense of purpose, something and someone to believe in - he is actually giving nothing away about himself. His medal-winning exploits in the war were just something he was doing to kill the time. The meter-vandalism was exactly the same thing. Thus, his time in the dusty, sun-frazzled clink is more such day-filling fuel. Luke doesn't actually know who or what he is either. The curious and haunting visit from his mother, played brilliantly with lung-rasping, sure-fire wit by Jo Van Fleet, only crystallises his wayward path all the more, providing Luke with an umbilical link to reality but, somehow, uniquely divorcing him from it still further at the same time. Of course, one crucial possibility of Luke's indomitable nature is that he could actually need prison in order to exist. Without rules to fight against, what else does he have to spur him on? Like his screen rival of Steve McQueen did with Hilts, the Cooler King in The Great Escape, Newman has Luke hauled back to the stockade after a failed escape attempt with a smirk upon his face. And, with all his other get-aways, you just know that he could have actually gotten away with it if he had really wanted to. Again, for Luke, escaping is just another past-time to indulge in until he finds a true purpose for his continuance in living and breathing.
“Luke, you gone too far when you mess with the man with no eyes!”
The film marvellously conveys how men, even as individuals with recognisable traits and personalities enough to help them get along as part of a crowd, ultimately need leadership if the pack is to survive. Even if the standard tough-guy or bully-boy, as Dragline certainly appears to have been before Luke's arrival, is normally the one to assume such a role, something different and wild in the face of regulations and rigidly enforced standards will actually be so much stronger in the long run than mere brute force. What the film says about “us and them” and the positives and negatives of hero-worship is always relevant and Cool Hand Luke is an accurate depiction of how someone can have celebrity forced upon them when they never even looked for it in the first place, simply by being themselves - which, of course, makes a mockery of 99 per cent of the participants in today's reality shows and talent-quests.
“Look, Cap'n, look what he done to Blue. He's dead ... he's dead. He run himself plum to death.”
Rosenberg and assistant director Hank Moonjean keep the film ticking over with incident - the celebrated episodes of the egg-eating (“Fifty? No-one can eat fifty eggs.”), the race to sand over the tar for a mile of road, the boxing match - but their combined ethic seems to have us sweat beneath the merciless and monotonous sun just as much as the convicts. The film is grand and lyrical, yet its big moments are handled with cool observation rather than blistering, showy pizzazz. Arguably, the most famous scene in the movie, that of Joy Harmon's incredibly titillating car-washing performance to torment the road-crew as they sweat impotently in the dust, is also the most telling. The girl, who remains unnamed even in the credits, is a fantastical element who may be real flesh and blood, but to these sex-starved rogues she is both heaven-sent and hotter than hell, an almost divine tease conjured up to test them and, at the same time, to give them inspiration. Rather than being merely a throwaway fun set-piece, its very arbitrariness - the girl is never seen again - her image and the memory of those soap-suds rolling down her body and that squirting hose-pipe beside her lips are passed into the men's collective folklore, a vital and, indeed, touching reverie that goes way beyond the simple lust that burned their loins by the roadside. Elsewhere, the action may be more transparent - Luke's agile and obviously military-honed escape and evasion instincts, for instance, that lead the dogs such a merry run-around - but the mood of cheerful abstraction is still prevalent. Cool Hand Luke seems to exist in a strange alternate reality of mood, introspection and beguiled camaraderie.
Add all this to Lalo Schifrin's stunningly simple score - part Copeland's pastoral Americana, part Blue Grass, all whimsical and haunting - and you've got a film that is very much of its time, yet profound enough to blend in with any era. For me, this is Newman's best film and one that I can return to anytime and pick up on some new layer of emotional complexity, a nuance here and there that reveals previously hidden textures. Much has said about the film's over-obvious Christ references - Luke lying in a crucifixion pose after eating all those eggs (a biblical feat if ever there was one) and his constant suffering for others - but this element is often purely comical and so blatant that it cannot be taken on anything other than a purely visual and superficial level. Luke's questioning of God and why He has placed him on Earth is also no more deeply allegorical than Dragline's naming of the car-wash girl Lucille - because she's innocent and possesses that body, he explains matter-of-factly. The film seems to revel in such collisions and asides, its primary concern one of redemption-by-proxy. The men in the road gang all benefit from the one person who deserves the most slack, yet never, ever receives it. Luke finds his place in the world and his reason for being ... but the sad thing is that he never even realises it.
A classic piece of American Cinema that deserves a place on every film-buff's shelf.
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