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Cool Hand Luke
1967 - NR - 126 Mins.
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Written By: Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson
Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Clifton James, Morgan Woodward, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton
Review by: Carl Langley
   

Bring on them hound dogs
Cool Hand Luke contains many cinematic achievements and by today’s standards, it is marked as an American classic. Ultimately, it stands as the most persuasive film that strongly details rebellion against a higher authority. The film features Paul Newman in what is arguably his best role and most sophisticated performance. This remarkably staggering motion picture has every little bit of decoration it can attract from a prison flick. Offering captivating pessimistic and optimistic sides of its carefully drawn out yarn, a manifold of red-letter scenes, satisfying sequences, lighthearted comedy, poignancy, and even some noticeable parallelism to evangelical stories, Cool Hand Luke is scrupulously orchestrated into one fine-tuned symphony.

As previously stated, many films have leaned on the broad shoulders of Cool Hand Luke, ranging from the adventurous Papillion (the numerous escape attempts and failures) to the broad, episodic Life (Eddie Murphy uses Paul Newman’s boxing match as a major influence). The impact alone that Cool Hand Luke has held on the prison genre makes this film a bona fide classic. It is easily compared to The Godfather and every mafia successor that milked it for all it was worth.

As the film opens, Lucas Jackson is in a drunken stupor, aimlessly wandering the streets, and cutting off the heads of parking meters. The film never fully gives a reason for this absurd destruction, but it is later told that Luke was a war veteran and the fact that he was solemnly drinking his war sorrows away is extremely possible; although we are informed later that he has always been a strong non-conformist, yet the film never really justifies this as reaction. It is better to think the film leaves it up to its viewers. Immediately, from the first frame, the negligence that Luke carries is apparent. He has no worries – the man has this smart-ass smirk smeared on his face when he is arrested. And this carries through the rest of film, establishing his character from the start.

Luke is sent to rehabilitation in a small prison facility where he will spend the next two years laboring in the smoldering heat digging ditches, hatching weeds, and tarring the dusty roads. The base is watched over by the warden (Strother Martin) and his merciless guards, including his sharpshooter, Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), who never utters a word the entire film, instead intimidating prisoners with his rifle and sunglasses.

When Luke first arrives, his fellow prisoners are suspicious of exactly who he is – especially Dragline (George Kennedy), a brute who seems to have control among all the men. Dragline cautions Luke of who is boss in the joint and Luke just carelessly goes about his business. At the turning most and one of the most pivotal scenes in the motion picture, Dragline challenges Luke to a boxing match while the other prisoners form a ring and bellow out their bets and opinions. Here Luke develops the utmost respect from the 49 inmates because of his insurmountable backbone and stoutheartedness.

The scene should be viewed as vital to the story’s whole. It expresses Luke’s vitality in a way that seems indomitable. His admirers also desire his carefree attitude. Several comedic sketches depict this, such as the time Luke bluffs a hand in poker and hustles several dollars from his fellow inmate. Here he develops his epithet – “Cool Hand” Luke. The event could not crystallize his personality any better. The scene that many will remember is the egg-eating contest. To pass the time on a rainy day, Luke claims he can devour fifty eggs in less than an hour. What is the point? Only to vindicate Luke’s reputation as a prison favorite.

Nothing can shake Luke’s vigorous attempts at escaping; not the double chains around his ankles and not the arduous labor that follows. The frequent rebellious escapades against the higher authority only bring him more accolade and in the end, Luke beats the system, just not the way he intended.

In my earlier review of Hud, I stated that Paul Newman has a knack for playing the loveable bad guy. This is what makes Newman one of the best. “Cool Hand” Luke is arguably the most loveable anti-hero ever to be written. This is all because of Newman’s persona; his physical mannerisms say a whole lot more than his dialogue. It is an absolute privilege to watch Newman perform. His supporting cast is uniformly superb as well, especially George Kennedy, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Dragline. A young Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton can be spotted as two inmates of the prison.

Upon my first viewing of Cool Hand Luke, I enjoyed the film, but wondered where all the hype was coming from. I came back to Stuart Rosenberg’s film a year later and realized most of the film is in the enriching performances. Then the scenes become more distinguished; and once that happened, the film established itself as a classic. This film constructs an exquisitely pulsating atmosphere. Take the time to appreciate Paul Newman’s portrayal of the nonchalant Luke. Take the time to appreciate the memorable scenes. And most importantly, take time to appreciate a cinematic masterpiece.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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