#485) Cool Hand Luke (1967)
OR “I Am a Christ Allegory from a Chain Gang”
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Written by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Based on the novel by Pearce.
Class of 2005
The Plot: A 1950s prison camp gets some “new meat” for their chain gang, including Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), a veteran doing time for cutting off parking meter heads. Luke immediately establishes his nonconformity by mouthing off to both his warden The Captain (Strother Martin) and lead prisoner Dragline (George Kennedy). Despite this initial “failure to communicate”, Luke’s perseverance and refusal to let the camp get him down prove an inspiration to his fellow prisoners. Let’s see, a young radical who doesn’t know his real father, has a following of about 12 guys, and is ultimately betrayed and crucified. Something very familiar about all this…
Why It Matters: The NFR praises Newman’s performance as a “classic antihero”, mentions the film’s Oscar nods, and quotes Strother Martin’s famous line.
But Does It Really?: In a film year that gave us “In the Heat of the Night“, “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde“, “Cool Hand Luke” can easily get lost in the shuffle of 1967’s movie lineup. But the film endures thanks to its bountiful iconic moments, a never-better Paul Newman, and some stunning imagery from cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. The film’s inspirational take on the anti-establishment stance of the ’60s gives the film a timeless quality, which has helped “Cool Hand Luke” remain a classic over 50 years later.
Everybody Gets One: “Cool Hand Luke” was the first major studio film for director Stuart Rosenberg, who spent most of the ’60s directing episodic television, as well as the independent film “Question 7”. Also making their sole NFR appearance is most of the supporting cast, including George Kennedy, Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker, and Morgan Woodward as “the man with no eyes”.
Wow, That’s Dated: As I mentioned in my “I Am a Fugitive…” post, chain gangs were more or less phased out of the American criminal reform system by the mid-‘50s, though some states continued the practice well into the ’70s, and Arizona briefly revived it in the mid ’90s.
Seriously, Oscars?: A critical and commercial success, “Cool Hand Luke” received four Oscar nominations, and George Kennedy took home the prize for Supporting Actor (Kennedy invested $5000 of his own money into his campaign). Newman’s Best Actor nod was his 4th failed bid in nine years. Perhaps most embarrassing, “Luke” missed out on a Best Picture nomination, because “Doctor Dolittle” you guys!
- I have a few personal connections with “Cool Hand Luke”. For starters, it was one of my Dad’s favorite movies, and subsequently I saw this film when I was a tad too young for it. “Cool Hand Luke” was also primarily filmed in my hometown of Stockton, California. Much of the seemingly endless stretches of road in the film are from Stockton’s outskirts, and look remarkably similar today. And yes, it’s always that hot.
- Donn Pearce based his novel “Cool Hand Luke” on his own experience in a Florida chain gang. Warner Bros. bought the film rights and commissioned Pearce to adapt the screenplay. Pearce’s screenwriting inexperience led to Frank Pierson being brought in. Depending on which story you read, it was either Pierson or director Rosenberg who layered on the Christ metaphors.
- Shoutout to Lalo Schifrin’s superb score. I could listen to that main theme all day.
- Dragline goes through a lot of trouble trying to give Luke a good nickname. Why not stick with “Fast Eddie“?
- Some of the most iconic lines from this movie are the ones that get repeated a lot. Keep an ear out for the frequent instances of lines like “Takin’ it off here, boss” and “Shakin’ the bushes, boss”. Anyone not noticing these moments spends a night in the box.
- Goddamit, there’s that “Enter the Dragon” collapse/oof sound again! Damn you to hell, Warners Sound Department!
- Oh god, it’s the “Lucille” scene. Everyone stop ogling that woman. That means you too, Conrad L. Hall!
- “Sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand [to play].” Can it? This movie has the same questionable moral as “Parasite“.
- Jo Van Fleet IS Geraldine Page. Like her Oscar-winning turn in “East of Eden“, Van Fleet nails her cameo here as Luke’s mother.
- Shoutout to Harry Dean Stanton. This is one of four NFR entries with Stanton, and while his characters never get much to do, he spent a 60+ year career being reliably perfect in whatever role he was given. And at least in “Luke” he gets to sing!
- This is yet another classic movie that I always forget Dennis Hopper is in. Speaking of, how did his character get the nickname “Babalugats”? And what does that even mean?
- The 50 egg challenge is still nauseating to watch. Between this and “Rocky“, eggs don’t come across as too appetizing in classic films. Oh, and afterwards, Luke is lying on the table in his underwear with his arms stretched out. Real subtle, everyone.
- Paul Newman sings too! And plays the banjo! What can’t he do?
- “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” Strother Martin spent most of his career in westerns (playing characters he referred to as “prairie scum”), and “Luke” was a chance to play a more sophisticated, yet more sadistic variation. Fun Fact: Due to their physical and vocal similarities, Martin was occasionally cast as Tennessee Williams-esque characters.
- Luke’s tactics for escaping and evading the police are quite ingenious. Did Christ use chili powder when he was a fugitive?
- We’re at the tail end of the Hays era, so the movie gently pushes a few boundaries. Profanity is sprinkled in for effect (“son-of-a-bitch” is the favorite), and there’s even some rear nudity! And Luke’s butt is not a double: that is Newman’s Own!
- I can see how George Kennedy got the Oscar. Dragline gets a nice character arc, going from the intimidating heavy to a helpless follower, and Kennedy makes that change subtly and effectively. Plus he gets to be the Judas!
- The film ends with a supercut of every time Luke/Paul Newman smiles in the movie (a late addition to the film), and a wide pan out to a crossroad. A crossroad. Get it? GET IT?
- “Luke” was an instant hit, and was just as instantly inundated with parodies. Everyone at some point in pop culture has commented on “a failure to communicate”. It helps that this line is repeated multiple times in the original trailer.
- The name “Cool Hand Luke” served as the inspiration for both the Christian band and the steakhouse.
- Lalo Schifrin’s composition for the “Tar Sequence” was used by ABC for their Eyewitness News programs throughout the ’70s (it has that rapid staccato associated with typewriters). The music is so ubiquitous with Eyewitness News, people thought Schifrin lifted the music from the show for “Cool Hand Luke”! That being said, Schifrin is on the record saying that he “laughed all the way to the bank”.
- The MTV show “Jackass” actually recreated the 50 egg challenge. Mercifully, I could not find a clip. Or maybe I just didn’t want to.
- Luke Jackson paved the way for such future Christ metaphors in film as E.T. and Neo. And just when you think Hollywood has killed this trope, it just keeps getting…revived? Is that the word I’m thinking of?