Cool Hand Luke – 1967
Director – Stuart Rosenberg
Starring – Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin
Combining religious imagery, southern drawl, male bonding, and a healthy dash of exuberance, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke has become more than the small story of a man’s stint in the clink, it has transcended its reach and become a meditation on the importance (or the lack of) of authority for authority’s sake. Paul Newman, arguably one of the most iconic actors of his time, perfectly personifies independence, and the idea of anti-establishment.
The story deals with capture and incarceration of the titular, Luke, and his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards that drive them, and with the bureaucratic warden who oversees everything in the prison. In the first 5 minutes of the film, we see Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters, being caught, and sentenced to 2 years in prison. While he is doing something technically wrong, the 2 year sentence seems a bit of an over-reaction to the weight of the crime.
Once in prison, Luke spends his time testing the boundaries set by both the inmates as well as those set by the guards. Eventually bonds begin to form, and a precident is set as the other inmates begin looking up to Luke. It is in this part of the film that the main relationship, that of Luke and George Kennedy’s Dragline, is solidified. The two men start off as rivals; Luke is simply pushing buttons, a behavior that Dragline sees as threatening to his authority among the other inmates. Over time, the men become friends, Dragline eventually becoming Luke’s biggest advocate.
There are many different theories on the internet about what the different factions represented in this movie represent. There is quite a bit of religious iconography that appears in the composition of the film, and while that is a perfectly valid interpretation, I fell more in line with the societal similarities. To start with, Luke. He gets his own group because he is really a free radical. He doesn’t follow any one set of guidelines despite what anyone else tries to force him to do. Luke disrupts the set in stone flow established by the system (the Warden), and maintained by the guards. He inspires change, and therefore straddles the line between respected and feared.
Next we have the prisoners. These men represent society, everyday people with faults and flaws. Each has a place, a role in the story, and each seems to run on a set path (ones that eventually get thrown off by the arrival of Luke). Despite the fact that each these men are convicted prisoners, all of them are relatable, and the majority of them are downright familiar, almost good. They represent all mankind. The guards are an obvious stand in for the law, specifically the police. These men keep the peace, and enforce the will of the bureaucracy, often utilizing fear, threat of violence and force (most personified by the anonymous and imposing “man with no eyes”).
Finally, we have the warden. In the story, the warden is one man, yet he represents a system of rule, or government that is infinitely larger than one man. Since this system is most disrupted by the arrival of Luke, the warden is the most afraid of him. What Luke represents is dependant upon which group you are from.
Despite it’s rather serious themes, Cool Hand Luke remains a rather jovial film, thanks in no small part to Newman’s performance as the eminently likable, Luke. Newman and George Kennedy were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Kennedy taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor. Balancing out the weight and likability of the main characters is Strother Martin as the warden. His measured performance never travels too far into the cartoon villain territory, yet it’s just strong enough to get the proper reaction. Cool Hand Luke is another film that is populated with famous faces before they were famous, including Harry Dean Stanton, and Dennis Hopper.
The film looks like a sweltering hot summer feels, sticky sweaty clothes and all. The era, and the setting of the film are perfectly evoked in the cinematography, with sunbleached days and hot, dark nights.
I am coming more and more to believe that Paul Newman was one of the industry’s best actors that never got the full recognition he deserved. I am writing this (in part) to commemorate his birthday (01/27/2010). So belated happy birthday to the late Mr. Newman! What we have here, is a failure to communicate! Well…I hope that’s not the case, anyway.