Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)

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By far Brooklyn filmmaker Stuart Rosenberg’s best-known feature, Cool Hand Luke has remained popular for nearly a half-century now, though that’s a tribute less to its director than to cinematographer Conrad Hall, leading man Paul Newman and perhaps especially editor Sam O’Steen, who’d immediately move from this often sullen, episodic prison film to his astonishingly emotive cutting of The Graduate. The photography, acting, pacing all work together with what seems like a profoundly refined film-grammatical use of little abstract punctuations that make a scene come to life: Dig the opening sequence of Paul Newman destroying parking meters. It’s unusual, quiet, but phenomenally gripping, and many other surprisingly evocative pieces of catharsis, editing, and wild decisionmaking come later. It’s as studied and measured and engagingly professional as Frank Lloyd’s work in the 1930s — and apparently no more personal, equally bloodless.

Rosenberg is giving his all to a story that doesn’t deserve all that much effort. Underneath it all, although the film is good thanks to his workmanship (and Hall’s, and O’Steen’s), it is a B-picture displaying Hollywood masculine fantasy at its most basic, featuring the alpha male-iest of alpha males, pretty boy Paul Newman in an anti-establishment version of the Paul Muni role in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The story credibility is questionable from the beginning and it never becomes truly believable, because the clean, coiffed Newman look, his icy mannerisms, his too-cool-for-school attitude don’t exist in real life anywhere, especially not in a rural prison. Moreover, he wins the respect of his WASPy, oddly normal and seemingly well-educated cellmates simply by being “an individual,” which reeks of escapism, without the kind of relief a better, less self-important lead actor might provide.

The problem, as usual when watching a film with one of the major Method Actors, is that Newman never stops being Newman; you’re never watching some guy on a chain gang, you’re watching Paul Newman on a chain gang, and all the shades of ego and hipsterdom that come with that. Even the dirt on his back is neatly arranged. Essentially, this is how white Hollywood executives view the life of locked-down punishment, the romantic lure of the road, the need for escape. Maybe there’s some truth in the imagery, but the movie doesn’t present anything the viewer doesn’t know; lord, Take the Money and Run seemed less sheltered. It’s unsurprising and almost slavishly routine from first frame to last.

It does feature an interesting conflict over the central character’s agnosticism (or atheism, it’s hard to say). When the guards learn somehow that Newman doesn’t believe in God, they really lay into him with punishment, brutality, and small-minded bureaucratic mindfucking (go dig a hole, then fill it in, then dig it again). Finally he’s beaten into remorse and is forced to submit to them, to surrender his much-heralded fuck-all individuality, to learn that, in Robert Cormier’s words, “he had to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to sell whatever they wanted you to sell, to do whatever they wanted you to do.” Of course in real life, the loss of individuality, temporary or otherwise, is part of the design of the prison system — although even in Florida, getting stuck on a chain gang for destroying a half-dozen parking meters seems a bit harsh. Which only makes the whole story that much more difficult to swallow.

With that said, Newman’s appearance of surrender is powerful, shattering, devastatingly disappointing (you buy the image of the film whether you like it or not), and the film should have ended at that point. Newman’s Nietzschean Superman-like qualities in this film hinge upon his shunning of religious faith, and when they take it away and force him to pray to God that he won’t be struck again, it’s one of the strongest portraits of the squelching of nonconformity by force in Hollywood history. “Don’t disturb the universe, no matter what the posters say” would have been a gloriously cynical ending to what is in its first two acts a rather vibrant exploration of small comforts in a kind of abyss, comforts now ripped away.

Instead the movie goes on for-fucking-ever after that. Newman goes for a third escape attempt, and there’s still no particular reason for the second. Cool Hand Luke wastes an appalling amount of time by repeating itself, often pointless episodic side bits like the useless subplot involving Newman’s wager that he can eat fifty eggs in an hour. (Even prison can’t be that boring.) No movie that coasts on such basic concepts of law, order, and confinement has an excuse for a 127-minute running time. Finally the film closes with a sort of anticipation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, except that whereas Cuckoo’s Nest was a mediocre film with a stunningly beautiful ending, Cool Hand Luke is a rich and enjoyable film that sells itself clumsily short with vaguely mythological mumbo-jumbo in its final half-hour.

All that said, it’s impossible to ignore how many films have copied Cool Hand Luke since it was made; it is full of signature moments, classic and remembered for good reason. Newman aside, most of the acting is strong as well; George Kennedy is almost ridiculously charismatic, as usual. Strother Martin steals the movie as the creepy Southern prison captain with slurred, fey speech patterns that could inspire murderous rage in almost anyone. He and his archenemy, Luke, are in many ways the same; both mistakenly think they always know what’s going on. Familiar faces like Harry Dean Stanton — who sings! — Dennis Hopper and Joe Don Baker populate the background, before any of them were known quantities. The deepest impression of all is made by Jo Van Fleet, haunting in her one and only scene as Luke’s mother Arletta; that sequence is brilliantly scripted by the writers Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, positioned to reveal and withhold just enough so that it feels like an actual conversation. One can’t help wishing that there’d been more of Van Fleet in the film, and yet this scene is tantalizing and fascinating enough that it would also seem somehow cheap to build upon it.

But you know what pisses me off about this movie the most? We never find out why Luke fucked up the parking meters to begin with. He tells someone he was “settling an old score.” I really want to know more about that. Whether that’s a criticism or compliment to the movie as a whole is probably down to your own taste and philosophies.

[Revision of a review posted in 2007.]

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