Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Dennis Hopper, Strother Martin
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writer: Donn Pearce (novel), Donn Pearce (screenplay)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Runtime: 126 Minutes
(Review originally written April 2006, contains spoilers)
All throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies cinema’s began filling up with a new kind of movie character. This character was affectionately dubbed ‘the anti hero’. While hero’s of the past were all kind considerate and upstanding citizens who all did their best to uphold the laws of the land and the opinions of movie goers, this new breed of hero could honestly not care less about what you or anyone else thought of him.
Characters of this nature began popping up more and more in movies like Easy Rider, Dirty Harry, The Hustler, and (Insert any movie title with Steve Mqueen or Charles Bronson in it). In the beginning of this type of movie making the characters were met with mixed reactions. There were many stories of audiences actually erupting in applause during the final scenes of movies like Easy Rider and Cool Hand Luke. Not because they were appreciative of the movie they had just seen, but because they were glad that the main characters had just been killed.
In the film ‘Cool Hand Luke’ Paul Newman creates one of his most memorable characters. When first we meet him, Luke Jackson is nothing more than a vandal and a vagrant who is busying himself with destroying some city parking meters. Alas, he is drunk and therefore easily caught and sent to a hell on earth like jail complete with it’s own personal high pitched raspy voiced Satan of a warden played by the lovable Strother Martin. There is also a mysterious character who rarely speaks who is referred to as ‘The man with no eyes’ most likely because of his ever-present and large reflective sunglasses. We soon learn a little later on that Luke was once a decorated war hero. But it’s easy to see how the rigid military lifestyle custom built with rules a plenty would have easily grown wearisome for a free spirit like Luke. He is by his own accounts “A pretty hard case” and the people who are trying to imprison have no idea just how hard of a case he is.
When I say he is a hard case, I don’t mean to imply that he is an unpleasant person, as he spends nearly 75% of the movie with that classic Paul Newman smile wrapped around his face. But he is hardened in the sense that no matter what obstacles are thrown at him, he refuses to be broken, yet he is not given super human strength’s or abilities. There is never a moment in the movie where you doubt the human authenticity of Luke Jackson. In an early fight scene in the movie Luke is getting the hell beaten out of him by his future ‘best friend’ Dragline. (That is if a man like Luke could have friends, this is probably the closest thing to one he would ever find.) During this entire sequence everyone gathered around to watch the fight tells Luke to give it up, but he presses on. His punches are weak and barely effect his opponent at all, rather than just in the end serving as such an annoyance that he can no longer stomach to dish out any more punishment to this crazed bastard that stands in front of him. Later on in the movie at a poker game Luke manages to pull off a rather impressive bluff. When questioned as to why he would go so far in on a nothing hand.. His reply was, ‘Sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand.’
If there was one overwhelming feeling you get from Luke in this movie it is that he feels like he has gotten a raw deal from the almighty. To support this theory I give you the following quote from one of the movies final scenes.
(He has just escaped from the chain gang for the third time and has wandered into an old beaten down shell of a church)
Luke: Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute. It’s about time we had a little talk. I know I’m a pretty evil fellow… killed people in the war and got drunk… and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much… but even so, You’ve got to admit You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of them… rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Old Man, I gotta tell You. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right. [Gets on knees, closes eyes and begins to pray] On my knees, asking.
Luke: Yeah, that’s what I thought. I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case.
Luke: Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way.
( Police Sirens go off outside)
Luke: [Shakes head and smiles] Is that Your answer, Old Man? I guess You’re a hard case, too.
I just saw this movie in it’s entirety for the first time tonight and it really left a lasting impression on me. In the end if you are a fan of this type of 60’s counter culture affair then you will probably fall in love with ‘Cool Hand Luke’ as well. Furthermore if you’re just a fan of well made movies with a strong backbone then you will also probably get a lot of enjoyment from this picture.