Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Screenplay by Donn Pierce and Frank Pierson
Having had the advantage of reading Donn Pearce's novel about a year before seeing Cool Hand Luke, it was with great anticipation that I awaited it's transfer to the big screen. It was one of those books that could make you laugh out loud through one chapter then send you into a state of depression a few pages later.
Cool Hand Luke could easily have been your typical by the numbers prison yarn. You know the drill. A mean despicable warden and his guards spend most of their time beating down and torturing the inmates whenever the opportunity arises until the inmates riot, escape, or play a game of football and justice prevails.
Cool Hand Luke manages to go beyond that type of generic prison yarn. Aided by a smart screenplay by Donn Pearce (who also penned the novel) and Frank Pierson, meticulously directed by Stuart Rosenberg, and two unforgettable performances by Paul Newman as Luke Jackson and George Kennedy as Dragline, Luke succeeds on almost every level. There is no paint by numbers here. Instead we get a memorable film filled with some terrific performances that have lost none of their impact almost 50 years later.
Lucas Jackson refuses to conform to the rules and sometimes unnecessary often hypocritical regulations forced upon him. In prison or out, there are always rules and regulations which Luke seems to be butting heads with. It's not that he's a bad person in the sense that he would go out and murder and maim someone.
He wants to be able to be free and to live life in his own way without being boxed in. He views society as having instituted many rules with no real purpose in mind. It seems to him that many regulations exist simply because somebody with a lot of free time on their hands decided it was a good idea to make more regulations because making one rule is never enough.
When you were growing up, how often after questioning your parents as to why you couldn't do something, they answered,"Because I said so."
How often have you bumped heads with any law, rule, and regulation and said aloud, "That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard of." But you obey the rule anyway.
And that's how Luke pretty much views the world. He can never reconcile the notion of being cornered or boxed in so that he can become the type of person society wants him to be instead of just being free to be himself and enjoy life.
When a very intoxicated Luke is arrested for cutting heads off parking meters, his explanation to the prison captain (Strother Martin) is "Small Town, not much to do in the evening", which would have us believe he was just being drunk and stupid.
Later, to one of the other inmates he mutters the same answer, but importantly adds "just settlin’ some old scores.”
It is a small but important moment that defines Luke beyond just being drunk and damaging public property. He doesn't break the rules just because he can, he does so only when there is a reason to. All alcohol does is give him the right push to just say “fuck it” and I’m going to do what I need to do.
As a service man, we also discover that Luke won a bronze star, silver star, two purple hearts, achieved the rank of sergeant but still came out as a buck private. Again, early evidence that Luke is willing to follow the regulations up until those regulations are deemed useless. You don't become a sergeant and win a bronze star if you don't at least try to fit in and obey the rules in some manner. And we can only speculate that perhaps Luke found himself playing toy soldier, nothing more than a pawn of the powers that be, and decided he was no longer interested in playing those games. Better to be a private and be yourself.
When Luke and several other inmates are settling in on their first day, Carr the Floorwalker, runs off a litany of rules as if he is reciting the Catholic Mass in Latin:
Carr:TThe box looms large. It is not just a tool of punishment, it is an instrument for breaking ones spirit. For The Captain, punishment alone doesn't bring satisfaction, but breaking down the will of those he oversees does.
Them clothes got laundry numbers on them. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends a night in the box. These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There's no playing grab-ass or fighting in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playing grab-ass or fighting in the building spends a night in the box. First bell's at five minutes of eight when you will get in your bunk. Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends the night in the box. There is no smoking in the prone position in bed. To smoke you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smoking in the prone position in bed... spends a night in the box. You get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top... the top sheet on the bottom... and the bottom sheet you turn in to the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one will sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sitting on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don't bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud talking spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me. I'm Carr, the floor walker. I'm responsible for order in here. Any man don't keep order spends a night in...
Luke: ...the box.
Carr: I hope you ain't going to be a hard case.
It is clear from the beginning that Luke's main desire is to serve his two years and then get the hell out. And while he may bend and work around the rules, he never shows any intention of doing anything that will get him more time. During a visit from his mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet):
Luke: I tried to live always free and above board like you but I can't seem to find no elbow room".During his final visit with Arletta, we find out more about Luke’s past. He is most like his father (whom he never met) and was favored by his mother over her other son growing up. Undoubtedly he was spoiled and use to doing and having things his own way.
Arletta: Why, we always thought you was strong enough to carry it. Was we wrong?
Luke: I don't know. Well, things are just never the way they seem, Arletta, you know that. A man's just gotta go his own way.
When push comes to shove and Luke is boxed into a corner, he instinctively pushes back. After receiving word that Arletta has passed away, Luke is put into the box for several days. It is not because he has done anything wrong. It is supposedly done to keep him from trying to escape to go to his mother’s funeral. But we know better.
Luke has already shown he’s pretty much a free spirit, and it was time for The Captain and his Bosses to show Luke that individuality cannot and will not be tolerated. The death of his mother was just a flimsy excuse to exercise that power.
It is ironic that it is the injustice of the punishment that is the trigger causing Luke to finally formulate an escape plan he probably never would have undertaken otherwise. As he tells one guard when he is going into the box, "calling it your job don't make it right, Boss."
Of course there are the other inmates. Some of them wear chains, some of them do not. It is something that director Stuart Rosenberg, emphasizes early and throughout the film. We understand quickly that sooner or later you conform. You either walk the line the way the bosses tell you to, or they will find the means to get you to walk the line. As the Captain reiterates, "for your own good, you'll learn the rules"
When they are on work details, the inmates don’t walk, talk, piss, shit, drink water, or even wipe the sweat off their brow without getting permission.
What we discover about the lives of the other inmates is minuscule, despite that each and every one have their own distinct idiosyncrasies and personalities.
One is jailed for manslaughter after hitting a pedestrian with his car, another is a paper hanger, another new inmate is charged with breaking, entering and assault. The nature of their crimes is unimportant to us. It enables us to view these prisoners as men, and while we don't always feel any genuine sympathy for them, feeling disgusted by their crimes would have been a distraction from the true purpose of Pearce's story, with Luke as the focal point. In our society, any punishment fits any crime, whether the punishment is warranted, even handed, if it steps over the line, or in some cases whether the person was truly guilty or not. To dwell on guilt or innocence of any of these prisoners would have muddied the waters, and given some people reason to justify their treatment at the hands of the Captain and his guards.
Because of his willingness not to give in or go down easy, it doesn't take Luke long before he unexpectedly becomes a hero to the other inmates. It is not a role he chooses, or even wants.
The other men see in Luke the spirit that they have had driven out of them over days of endless road work and nights of never ending drudgery in the steaming Southern heat. It unexpectedly imposes the burden on Luke of having to live up to the almost mythical expectations of the other inmates. He never truly understands the nature of this hero worship, and would be just as happy if he didn't have to deal with it.
It is Dragline(George Kennedy) who firmly establishes that Cool Hand Luke is a man who can not be beaten. In the novel it is Dragline who is narrating the story. It is not until the end of the film that we become aware that we are actually viewing the events in the past tense as Dragline tells Luke’s story.
Dragline's admiration for Luke seems to extend from the fact that he (Dragline) has learned the rules on how to get by, but yet regrets having lost some of his own individuality in the process. When he beats Luke to a bloody pulp in a boxing match and Luke refuses to fold, he finally understands that in this particular prison camp, Luke is one of a kind.
Dragline has adopted Luke as he would a son. He is the rest of the inmates in microcosm. Dragline was the role of a lifetime for Kennedy, and he was never better than he is here and it won him the best supporting actor award for his work.
Cool Hand Luke is not without it's humorous moments especially in the early going. It is these moments that help move the film from the early stages to the darker later stages where after a while just like Luke, we can foresee the inevitable climax.
In translating his novel to the screen Donn Pearce along with Frank Pierson, has managed to bring the heart and soul of his work to the big screen. Lalo Schifrin's memorable score emphasizes often the repeated drudgery of working on the chain gang, the playfulness of the egg eating frenzy, and is used to especially great effect during the escape sequences. Director Stuart Rosenberg made more good films after Cool Hand Luke, but in my opinion never achieved the same degree of honesty in film making that he does here.
As Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman gives one of the most memorable performances in a long and distinguished career. It is not an easy task portraying a man who travels the road from being a sincere individualist, to a man who may be beaten and defeated, yet in the end is still unwilling to accept that fate.
Although Rod Steiger won the best actor award that year, one could argue that Newman's role was in many ways more difficult, as it required substantially different subtle ranges in character but it is the flashy performances like the one Steiger gave in In The Heat of the Night that usually are rewarded. I certainly do not mean to take anything away from Steiger's performance as Gillespie. But after many years, I think Newman’s work holds up just as well.
I'm at a loss to explain that the failure and extraordinary malfunction of Cool Hand Luke to achieve at least a Best Picture Nomination, especially when the likes of the totally crappy Doctor Doolittle, and the vastly over rated Guess Who's Coming To Dinner were nominated for the award. But the Oscars have never been the last word on anything when it comes to quality and is far from being the final say in such matters.
Toward the end of the film Luke is in a church and just as he did earlier during a rainstorm, he stops to talk to the man upstairs:
Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute. It's about time we had a little talk. I know I'm a pretty evil fellow... killed people in the war and got drunk... and chewed up municipal property and the like. 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? Old Man, I gotta tell You. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right.
And moments later, when the guards and the captain show up, we instinctively know what they will never understand. It is the same thing that Dragline came to understand about Luke.
You can beat a man down until he finally capitulates, but you can never take away his soul.
Cool Hand Luke is a remarkable film, and it is one of my all time favorites. And when it comes to giving out grades to my favorites I have no choice but to give a really cool A+.
Cool Hand Luke is available from Warner Home Video on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video. The screen captures used in this review are taken from the excellent transfer of the film to the blu-ray format and I recommend that.
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