Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cool Hand Luke

A man comes home from a war and doesn't know how to fit into normal society. He ends up wandering the streets, drunk, beheading parking meters. It's not really the crime of a hardened criminal, (he doesn't even take any money) but the parking meters are public property, so symbolically you have the character of Luke already established (perhaps overly punctuated by the VIOLATION flashed across the screen every time a meter falls) Destruction of public property means two years served at a Southern prison camp/chain gang.

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:


TirzahLaughs said...

A wonderful film...how do you think it compares to One Flew Over the CooKoo's Nest. Similar theme. But there is something buoyant about this movie.

The main character loses, dies...and yet as a watcher you feel like he won anyway.

And his winning gives hope to the other convicts that don't even bother to run (the masses).

We all want someone to prove the system can be broken even if we never buck it ourselves.

See how during the depression that some of the bank robbers because folk heroes (Public Enemies--Depp). People want to see even a criminal win, if it means the oppressive system take a hit.

Anyway, I'm rambling.

I'll come back. Love this movie.

I left you a blog award on my blog.


INDBrent said...

Hey Tirz,

Don't worry about rambling! Rambling usually brings out the best ideas. Great observations too. I think that Cool Hand Luke is like the brother movie to "Cuckoo's nest." Both guys are ultimately powerless but that won't stop them from asserting their individuality.It's a powerful idea, that someone can believe so much that they'll walk right into destruction rather than back down.

Definitely see the bouyancy too. But I blame Paul Newman for that. He has such a charismatic presence, you can't dislike him, and you can't stop hoping he'll win. Nicholson in Cuckoo's nest is darker, more cynical. The striking thing about Luke is he shows no malice whatsoever (anger, but that's different, he doesn't want to make someone pay he just wants to be alone)I thought the same thing about Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler. The absence of any malice is very disarming.

We all resent the system, but we know we can't challenge it. When conditions point this out too acutely, we create these figures to fight for us.

An award! Thanks I really appreciate it. I'll get to your blog to check it out.

DB said...

A very good film indeed. Even if that egg eating bit is not possible.

INDBrent said...

Hi DB,

Thanks for reading! I think the egg eating miracle is intended to cement the Christ parallel. It also maked the film hit harder that a guy capable of the impossible can't win outright.

Rajini said...

Had watched this movie a long time back, but your vivid review serves as a memory refresh! A good film with a subtle, soft, yet memorable performance from Newman.

Yes, the egg eating scene does remain in one's memory, the parallels drawn with the inmates fawning all over Luke like disciples and after the finish, the way they all let him alone lying as if on the cross.

Also poignant is the scene after his mother's death, where he walks to his bed to grieve alone.

A good film and a nice review.

INDBrent said...

Thanks! I couldn't resist including the mourning clip at the end! I love that scene.

rhonda said...

I haven't watched Cool Hand Luke in forever...reading your post makes me want to see it all over again!

INDBrent said...

Glad to hear it Rhonda. I hope you do. Thanks for stopping in!

Anonymous said...

Another awesome movie and awsome post, Brent! I must have seen this movie a million times but the whole Jesus symbolism has never been as clear as when you point it out, particularly the coming back from the dead and Dragline as the "Judas." But like you said, the heavy handedness is probably obscured by Newman's great performance, not to mention the supporting cast. The next time I watch it, it'll be with new eyes.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Sweepyjean! Dragline in my opinion is a great examination of the "Judas" character. In the story of Jesus, Judas really loved Jesus, but felt he had to do what he did. He gets a bad rap, but Jesus basically told him what to do!
There are many other examples which you can pick up if you're looking for this element. The script is smart enough that most of them fit seamlessly into the story.

Lena said...

You know the more I read your reviews the more I realize that maybe I am not much into these movies as I have not seen many. Seems like I missed out on a lot of them.

INDBrent said...

Hi Lena,

Interesting. I think that Cool Hand Luke is one in particular that anyone could appreciate, no matter what your taste, if only for Paul Newman's amazing performance.

Mandy said...

Gosh Paul Newman was gorgeous. I have barely seen any of these older films but you make me want to look them up!

INDBrent said...

Very glad to hear it Emm! This movie (and this Paul Newman) was a long time before the Paul Newman we recognize from the salad dressing!

Anonymous said...

Of all of Newman's movies, "Luke" is my favorite.

Best line: What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Best part: The egg eating contest.

They don't make movies like this anymore.

INDBrent said...

Newman's got a lot of good stuff, but yeah, Luke's number 1 for me too.

The character couldn't exist anymore. I laughed reading another review of the movie, the reviewer said "if a guiy like Luke was working for me, I'd fire him as the loner type is always trouble." I was dumbfounded.

Ken said...

I've come back to this post at least half a dozen times just because I was hoping to contribute a comment that would be of value to the discussion... but, honestly, I can't get past my memories of the egg scene from this movie. :-)

By the way, the current world record for eating boiled eggs stands at 65 (consumed by Sonya Thomas of Virginia in six minutes and forty seconds).

I'll try to offer something more valuable next time I comment :-)

INDBrent said...

Thanks Ken! I'm always glad to see so much thought go into the comments, but don't sweat it too much. I'm just glad you're reading, and feel free to just say hello if you like.
That is however, quite a contribution. 65 eggs in under seven minutes? I thought 50 in an hour was impossible. I wonder if Sonya Thomas had the same "can't throw up" condition that Luke did?

JACQUI said...

It's because we think we can't challenge it, that it can't be challenged (the system). If we all thought we could (which of course we could due to numbers) then we could. But so long as people think we can't, we can't. Great analysis here Brent. I wasn't too sure about criminal movies but now I'm seeing the analysis and themes, I've seen the light. Excellent blog Brent! Truly.

INDBrent said...

absolutely jacqui.

if everyone thought we could the system, then the system would already be changed! It's too bad that fear is such a powerful deterrent. In this movie, the minute someone besides Luke, forgot he was powerless he knocked the reflective glasses right off the bosses face (he reclaimed his humanity) Granted it was only for a moment, but it was a big moment.

Thanks very much for all the the compliments! I realize this stuff isn't everyone's thing and I'm ok with that, but I think there's a lot to learn from the idea of the antihero and I'm glad you gave it a fair shot.

The character aren't always pretty but I think that we invent them to keep ourselves awake. Historically these types of character are more popular the less powerful the public feels. The movies of our time reflect what's on our collective mind.

Thanks Jacqui, you made my day!

Mesina said...

See these are the sorts of films I'd probably love to see but would hesitate to put on. I love the post, it's really making me look back at a huge era of films I really never got exposure to! Kudos!

INDBrent said...

Thanks Mesina!

Dori and Auj said...

old school classic! love it. :)

INDBrent said...

Thanks for reading! Me too, Newman is so good in this one!

Noiree said...

Although I disagree with it, I find your intrepretation of Cool Hand Luke very interesting. If you haven't seen it, may I recommend Hud? It is a much better movie than Cool Hand Luke, and Newman's performance in it is even better than his excellent performance in Cool Hand Luke. Would love to share impressions of these films with you, in real time. Maybe we could chat on Facebook sometime.

INDBrent said...

Hi Noiree,

I'm interested in what you disagree with. I like when people care enough about films to disagree about them! I'd love to hear your take and differences of opinion. As far as HUD goes, I agree it's a great movie and performance, but Luke made a bigger impression on me. I'll watch it again though to give that comparison a fair shake. It's been a long time since I've seen HUD.
Facebook chat is cool just friend request me or I will if I can find yours.

Noiree said...

Brent, I like it when people care enough about movies to give them a second look! Thanks for your willingness to reconsider Hud. I've sent you a friend request on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

Great post about a great film, Brent.
Cool Hand Luke has so many great scenes,memorable lines and iconic images I'm amazed to hear it was director Stuart Rosenberg's first film.
By the way did you watch Hud again ?
That's another of my favourite Newman performances and I'd love to hear your opinion of it.

INDBrent said...

Thanks Paul,

Cool Hand Luke truly is a one of a kind film! Paul Newman was born for the role. Hud is one of those movies that's always on my to watch list but I never get to it. Without a doubt, HUD is a great film, and you'll see it here at some point, another outstanding Newman performance to be sure!

BRENT said...

This is a fine review! It has been at least 25 years since I last saw this and even though it is a quarter century ago this is still my favorite Newman film of those I have seen.
It is like all great films in that no matter the time between seeing them certain things remain with you and the boiled egg scene is indelibly marked in my mind.
And I will always remember the end where the guards glasses are squashed. I have vague memories of other scenes and after reading this wish I could see it again right now!
It is certainly a film that once watched is never forgotten and after 25 years I've never forgotten it.