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  Cool Hand Luke A Failure To Communicate
Year: 1967
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Clifton James, Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, Marc Cavell, Richard Davalos, Robert Donner, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Tyner, Anthony Zerbe
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Luke (Paul Newman) has been arrested for chopping the heads off parking meters in a drunken spree, and as a result has been convicted for damage to public property and sentenced to a chain gang. In spite of his noble war record, the court shows no leniency, and soon he is being walked into the camp where he will meet his fellow prisoners and the Captain (Strother Martin) who gives him and the other newcomers the rundown of what to expect: a set of regulations that should they break them, will earn the jailbirds a day in the box, which is what it sounds like, a box where they can sweat out and ruminate on their misdemeanours. But something about Luke, polite as he is, indicates trouble...

Maybe it's that sly smile that plays about his lips, but Cool Hand Luke was essentially "movie star goes to prison", bringing with him all the charisma that would indicate and all the reasons for the other underdogs in the story to rally round him. You couldn't lock Paul Newman up, seemed to be the message, he was just too handsome, too good for this world and if he had been chopping up meters then so what? He was Hollywood royalty by 1967 and was treated as such by moviegoers keen to see his latest movie. He fully admitted this was one of his favourite roles, embodying the rebel hero that was growing more significant as the sixties wore on, that decade of civil unrest and assassinations this work spoke to.

For someone as comfortable as Newman in both his career and his place in society as a famed exponent of good deeds and liberal causes, from some angles Luke (which is Cool backwards, if that means anything) would appear to be a chance to live out some wish-fulfilment, you know how masochistic the big stars get in their roles if they want to prove themselves great talents, and this was little different. The fact this was an allegory of the persecution of Jesus Christ, and made no secret of that, should have rendered it too much to take in its comparisons, and director Stuart Rosenberg did not shy away from that aspect whatsoever, but somehow the commitment, the sheer gruelling trials it depicted, went some way to justifying that hubris.

Luke doesn't start the film as the champion of the disenfranchised, he's just another prisoner possibly distinguished by his sense of being above this charade that he is being punished for what is relatively trivial compared to what everyone else is in the camp for. To that end, he is treated with suspicion by the others, particularly George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role as Dragline, which turned his career around and rightly so - the whole cast, well-kent faces and otherwise, was extremely well-chosen, with the likes of Dennis Hopper (twitchy), Harry Dean Stanton (singing) and Anthony Zerbe (in his debut) perfect for the personality they would bring even the most incidental characters, and they were just the prisoners. The guards were memorable too, notably Morgan Woodward as the mirrored shades-sporting sharp shooter who has his eye on Luke, though oddly source writer Donn Pearce resented the entire thing as a bastardisation of his novel.

The first half contained two sequences that would have made any movie famous, first where the men on the chain gang were distracted by a young woman (model Joy Harmon) washing a car and deliberately inflaming their desires in the process, and the other, even more indelible, where Luke commences his campaign of suffering for a possibly obscure shot at redemption by eating fifty hard boiled eggs in one hour. Though some celebrated eating scenes in cinema will make the audience feel hungry, this had quite the opposite effect, and you can feel your gorge rise as the countdown to the fiftieth egg approaches. But the second half, after the hero suffers a bereavement that has him questioning his existence, was the real endurance test; in probably the sweatiest movie ever made, Luke decides he's had enough of the chain gang and starts his bids for freedom, not because he can get away, but because it's his way of clinging to his last vestiges of humanity in a system that determines to drain it out of him. Nobody can punish me like I can, he says, not in so many words, but the whole experience is exhausting. For some, that's enough for greatness, for others, it's too much. Music by Lalo Schifrin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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