Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
★★★★ / ★★★★

On a drunken night, Luke (Paul Newman) is arrested for cutting heads off parking meters. Along with three others, he is sent to a prison camp led by Captain (Strother Martin), rather small in frame and voice but whose bite stings when his authority is challenged. Luke’s term is a year, quite short compared to his fellow inmates. Every day of the week, except weekends, the prisoners are expected to trim endless weeds along roads. Initially, Luke has come to accept his reality. However, with only a few days left prior to completing his time, tragedy strikes and it triggers the rabbit in his blood.

“Cool Hand Luke,” based on the screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, is a prison drama that can almost be divided into two pictures and each would still be wonderful entertainment, from bets involving eating fifty hardboiled eggs in an hour to multiple attempts of escaping the camp. A smart script supported by faultless performances by Newman and George Kennedy, Luke’s rival and best friend, it is a film that asks us to think about how we live our lives as free people in our society by using the prisoners and their roles in the prison camp as a model. It is intelligent but never heavy-handed about the points it wishes to convey.

There are three succeeding scenes that I found nothing short of impressive. The first involves a boxing match between Luke and Dragline (Kennedy). Though it involves two people pounding on each other’s flesh, it is not all that exciting. However, it is the first scene that tells us what sort of protagonist we are dealing with. This is a man who refuses to give up even it means subjecting himself to humiliation. Throughout the one-sided match, most noticeable is the gradual change in the inmates’ reactions: roars of encouragement to deafening silence.

The second scene involves a card game between Luke and Loudmouth Steve (Robert Drivas). There is a calm in Newman’s face despite his character’s bruised face. This time, we observe the man being in his element. Throughout the scene, it becomes increasingly apparent that Luke is unlike the other prisoners. The other guys are in there to serve their time and get out. He, on the other hand, does not particularly care about being released. Notice the way he plays his cards and the reaction he has after the winner is revealed.

Most moving and most complex is the third scene. Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) visits her son but does not leave the car due to her condition. A cigarette is given from mother to child but not once do they touch. Neither informs the other his or her love. Luke does not even call his mother “Mom,” just Arletta—as if she were an acquaintance. But there is a sensitivity in their interaction that runs deep. The story is their eyes. Since we are not provided that story, I began to construct one in my mind long after they said their goodbyes. There is one thing that made me feel a bit sad and curious. As Luke starts walking away from the car, a man, who might be his stepfather or brother, hands him a banjo and says something like, “Now there’s no reason to come back.”

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg and based on the novel by Donn Pearce, “Cool Hand Luke” is ultimately about, I think, a determined loser. The main character continues, to my greatest frustration, to function on survival mode, just enough to get through a situation but not enough to stick with something to ensure not repeating similar mistakes.

This is why Newman is perfect for the role. He is very handsome and charming so our guard is down. But the closer we choose to look, it is clear that Newman has a created a character who is worn out and not all that trustworthy. Even if Luke made a successful escape, I was not convinced that he would or could lead a life that was happy and complete.

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