Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Cool Hand Luke
Paul Newman's Luke is a Christ figure appropriated for the those disenfranchised with the Vietnam era rule makers. Christ parallels are so frequent in the movie, that it's really not even debatable. But Newman's performance is so compelling that it's easy to forgive the heavy handed symbolism (and there is a lot of it.)
When first presented to the Captain, (Strother Martin in a bone chilling performance) the power behind the prison camp, and asked to explain why he took out the meters, Luke just says that he wasn't thinking. He doesn't have a plan, he just wants some space to be himself. He is not the typical anti-hero, he's not vicious, aggressive or manipulative. Luke doesn't want to lead a movement. He's a revolutionary only in spite of himself. His smirk and his inability to hold his tongue are his only weapons, but they prove much more threatening than a fist or a gun.
Luke's first challenge is the most insidious authority, that which the inmates themselves create. His criticism of Dragline (George Kennedy), the self appointed inmate leader's apologizing for the bosses throwing an inmate in "the box" (a tiny shed outside the quarters where a prisoner can barely move) for no good reason develops into Dragline's instant dislike for Luke.
Dragline: He ain't in the box because of the joke played on him. He back-sassed a free man. They got their rules. We ain't got nothin' to do with that. Would probably have happened to him sooner or later anyway, a complainer like him. He gotta learn the rules the same as anybody else.
Luke: Yeah, them poor old bosses need all the help they can get.
Challenged to a fight outside, Luke gets pounded into a bloody mess, outmatched entirely. He can't land a punch, but gets up and heads right back for Dragline's fists every time he's knocked down. Everyone begs Luke to stay down. Dragline himself feels bad and asks him to stay down, but Luke says "You'll have to kill me." The bosses watch with interest as everyone just walks away tired of watching Luke get beaten, leaving Luke to circle all alone. Later on, after winning a poker hand with an outrageous bluff, Dragline observes that Luke won the hand with nothing, comparing it to their fight earlier. "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand." Luke responds. giving Dragline the idea for his nickname.
The inmates admire Luke's stubborn refusal to conform. Dragline's early enmity transforms into an over the top affection, and soon he's fawning over Luke like a schoolboy with a crush. Dragline is effectively Luke's first and closest disciple. After the fight, the bosses see that Luke will be a problem, feeling threatened by the gross display of will power. Luke's influence spreads like an infection. Authority chafes at him more and more but he never raises a hand, he instead chooses "harmless" ways to rebel, such as convincing the inmates to work as fast as they can on a job, leaving the bosses no choice but to let them stand around when the work is done, and "do nothing."
The most ominous authority figure is Boss Godfrey ( Morgan Woodward) the silent boss who leers menacingly, eyes always hidden by his reflective sunglasses (symbolism that works) He oversees the men at work on the chain gang. Now and then he motions an inmate to fetch his rifle so he can demonstrate his accuracy (and remind the inmates not to try running) by shooting game out on the road. His silent inhumanity is a perfect foil for Luke's smile and human charm.
Luke's last benign rebellion is the "egg eating" scene. Luke bets that he can eat 50 eggs without throwing up in one hour, uniting everyone in their interest in the outcome. Everyone thinks it's impossible (making it a "miracle" perhaps) This leads to the well known "crucifixion" scene. Luke, spent after forcing the last egg down, sprawls out on a table just like Jesus on the cross. Notably, Carr, the boss who watches them in their quarters, is drawn into the excitement, even agreeing to time the event, giving Luke his second subversive triumph over authority.
Luke is soon forced into "the box" when his mother dies. The Captain explains that it's to prevent him from running, due to thoughts of attending his mother's funeral. The guard escorting him apologizes, saying that he's only doing his job. Luke replies, "Calling it your job don't make it right." Luke's finally had all he can take and his thoughts turn to escape. He runs and gets caught, getting fitted with leg irons to prevent it from happening again. It's for your own good, the Captain explains, prompting Luke to answer. "I wish you'd stop being so good to me." The Captain loses his cool and strikes him, before giving his famous "failure to communicate" speech.
Of course Luke is still set on escaping and makes a break for it with the leg irons on. He gets a little further this time, convincing some kids to break his chains with an axe, and borrowing pepper and curry powder to mess up the dogs. He gets away farther, even sending the inmates a magazine doctored with a picture of Luke living the high life with a couple of pretty women. Of course they catch him again, returning with Luke badly beaten and angry for the first time. The Captain tells him they're going to "get his mind right." giving away the real struggle here, and the reason Luke's smile is so unbearable to the bosses.
This time they decide to break him definitively, forcing him into the box for days and then feeding him a plate of rice that he can't possibly finish, telling him if he doesn't clean his plate he goes right back in the box. His fellow inmates each take a handful of his rice, perhaps in response to an earlier outburst from Luke, telling them to stop feeding on him. He's then forced to dig a grave sized hole, and fill it back in, then dig it again, knocking him into the grave to drive the point home. Exhausted and still feeling the beatings, he sobs and pleads that "his mind is right." (Of course here the Jesus parallel again holds up, as Luke is changed by the grave and returns)
Luke's defiance subsides, (still dead) and he now jumps to fulfill the whims of the bosses, knowing they'll kill him if he escapes again. His stubborn streak rises though and he runs for it again, this time stealing the keys to the bosses truck, with Dragline tagging along. Dragline is proud that Luke fooled everyone, but Luke corrects him, telling him that he was really broken. He also leaves Dragline telling him that the has to go on his own. (like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane) Luke knows that he's gone as far as he can go, so he hides in a nearby church and takes a minute to talk to God, (Like Jesus asking God to take the cup from him) before determining, of course that he has to take up his own cross.
Dragline panics, and sells out Luke's hiding place (Judas) forcing the inevitable confrontation with the man in the sunglasses. The confrontation is quick giving Luke just enough time to parrot "What we've got here is failure to communicate." out the window before he's shot by the man with no eyes. Luke can't reach him, but Dragline is so distraught, he charges the man with no eyes, knocking off his glasses, giving Luke the biggest triumph of his life, indirectly. The Captain is still beyond his reach, but Luke smiles with his last breath as he dies in the Captain's car, which is running over the reflective sunglasses.
Director Stuart Rosenberg's only flaw was the overindulgence in symbols, as the same story would have been told without them. Other than that, he does a fine job keeping the scenes relevant to the story, at times even finding truly beautiful and original imagery. Considering the fact that this was his first film, the accomplishment is remarkable. The cast is fantastic all around including (Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper are both fellow prisoners) and a lesser actor than Newman could have easily been eclipsed by so many other strong characters. Fortunately, he's at the top of his game here and handles it easily.
Although echoing the story of Jesus, Luke is clearly his own character and this is not a religious movie. His smile and wit are both his own, and it's the humanity of Newman's performance, is what makes Cool Hand Luke a masterpiece. Cool Hand Luke was created as an anti-hero necessary for his time, but became like Jesus, or Tom Joad, a figure suitable for any time that the rules are used to crush our humanity. The individual must conform or die, when facing "the rules" head on. But they can’t make him insignificant. Luke had to lose, as conforming wasn't in him, and the bosses were too powerful to be defeated, but only he could decide to lose so gracefully, getting back up with nothing every time.
Here's a clip in memory of Paul Newman, one of the greats, as watching Cool Hand Luke should tell you: