To begin my discussion on Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 classic I’m going to go really off-field here. And I mean more than usual. For reasons far too vague to go into now I recently found myself watching Nick Moore’s 2008 film “Wild Child”. There was a scene where Emma Roberts’ character (a prime candidate for retro-active birth control if ever there was one) was having a brand new BFF moment with a college roommate played by Kimberly Nixon. In an extraordinarily rare instance of humanity (and dredging up as accurate a recollection of the scene as I can) Roberts apologizes for being such an asshole.
“You’re not an asshole,” Nixon gently reassures Roberts, “you just look like one.”
Cut to Your Numble Harrator shaking his head and muttering: “Wrong. She is an asshole.”
(Oh wait, I remember now. I was watching “Wild Child” because Shirley Henderson was in the cast. I knew I had a legitimate reason somewhere.)
Okay, and I’m bringing this up is because I’m of two minds concerning “Cool Hand Luke”. I recognize it to be a major piece of filmmaking with many fine performances. There’s no denying that.
On the other hand I’m always uncomfortable about watching this movie for numerous reasons. In the first place I get a little queasy about sitting through 126 minutes of human suffering and degradation (that’s what four years in a small town Texas high school will do to a person). In the second place . . . and speaking of “queasy” . . . that scene with the hard-boiled egg eating contest is really painful to watch.
Thirdly (and here’s the kicker): I have certain problems with Paul Newman’s titular character. I know I’m probably going to take some heat for this, but I’ll take a shot towards clarifying my opinion. The ad campaigns and such for the film stressed how both the film and Newman’s character “would not conform”.
Oh really? “Cool Hand Luke” was nonconforming compared to, say, “The Graduate”? “Bonnie and Clyde”? “In the Heat of the Night”? “I Am Curious (Yellow)”? “In Cold Blood”? I don’t know about you people, but I call BS on this. BS squared and cubed. “Cool Hand Luke” was certainly direct and open in regards to the story. But nonconforming?
But, as Strother Martin opined in what was perhaps his most famous role, there’s something of a problem with communication here. I’m aware that I’m supposed to take the fashionable role and go “Right On!” at Luke’s struggle with his plight against the System (accompanied by one of the finest soundtracks Lalo Schifrin ever composed), but I’m calling BS once again. Paul Newman’s character of Luke Jackson cops a two-year sentence in a Florida road prison for unscrewing the tops off of parking meters. We’re not exactly talking Tiananmen Square here, pumpkins. We’re told that Luke served a hitch in the Army, earned several decorations and made it to the rank of sergeant, but was busted out as a private. Okay: so he doesn’t like the rules and regulations that everyone seems to be dumping on him. I can accept that. So his method of “getting back” is to do something that will bury him under a lot more regimentation? A lot more rules and regulations? And for what? So he can manage to escape for a short while, only to end up getting shot while in a deserted church?
This is sensible rebellion? This was the reward for all that nonconformity? No wonder a lot of people tend to prefer “The Shawshank Rebellion”.
(I will digress here a moment and comment that I was surprised they’d give someone a sentence of two years on a road gang for unscrewing the tops off of parking meters. I mean Criminy!)
In my heart of hearts I really have a problem applauding someone who does something so monumentally stupid and is singled out to be some sort of Hero Figure. I suffer pretty much the same feelings regarding Brad Davis’ portrayal of Billy Hayes in Alan Parker’s “Midnight Express”. We’re supposed to stand up and cheer as Davis escapes the brutality of a Turkish prison . . . supposedly ignoring the fact that the reason Davis’ character was in the prison in the first place because he was stupid enough to try and smuggle hashish out of the country. Stupid.
To tell the truth I was a lot more sympathetic towards Newman in Rossen’s “The Hustler” (which one critic righteously referred to as “Greek drama in a pool hall”). Yes, as with the character of Luke, Fast Eddie Felson got himself into serious trouble because of some bad decisions. But part of his anguish and struggle were born out of the feelings he had for Piper Laurie’s character. This added a welcome layer of nobility to Newman’s efforts (and I felt “The Hustler” was far more nonconforming than “Cool Hand Luke”). Hell, I had more sympathy for Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting”, and his characters in both of those movies were certainly further removed from Law and Order than Luke.
So I tell myself that maybe the filmmakers chose to market “Cool Hand Luke” as being rebellious and “nonconformist” because they suspected that audiences wouldn’t sit through a film trumpeted as a story of someone so mentally lame as to end up chopping grass in roadside ditches. Stupidity wouldn’t sell (at least not until “Forrest Gump” came out). I also tell myself that Newman liked to stretch the envelope in regards to the sort of leading men he played. His Luke is rather like the titular character he played in “Hud”: selfish, self-promoting and basically not very nice (and both characters having brilliant movies woven around them).
(OK, so Luke loved his mama. “No beast so fierce that knows some touch of pity, etc. etc.”)
It could be argued (and probably will be) that Luke at least became a hero to the immediate circle of fellow inmates at the prison. An inspiration to uplift the spirit against the very real oppression and sadism of the prison staff, Maybe I am supposed to accept this and remind myself that God counts every tear. But I keep thinking that rebellion and nonconformity should strive for higher goals. And maybe I should recognize the reality that all our aspirations and dreams can bring us nothing but a bullet in an empty church.
(Y’know, Life is a heck of a lot easier for me when I’m talking about films featuring a woman who can turn into a snake.)
So let me push the soapbox aside for the time being and get into some actual Cinemaspeak.
Rosenberg was a man who left behind a fairly impressive body of work. “Cool Hand Luke” will probably be considered his masterpiece, but he also brought us “Let’s Get Harry”, “The Laughing Policeman”, “The Pope of Greenwich Village”, “WUSA” and several others. Not as edgy as, say, Scorsese or Cassavetes, but a comfortable eye for drama on the streets (or, in the case of “Cool Hand Luke”, out in the fields). As you’ve probably guessed from the preceding body of this rambling, Rosenberg possessed a nice talent for pushing some of my buttons). That’s good. Given a choice between being bored and being uncomfortable I think I’d choose uncomfortable. Combined with Conrad Hall’s cinematography and Frank Pierson’s screenplay (co-written with Donn Pearce, who had written the original novel), Rosenberg made us feel all the pain and suffering that’s going on with the characters. Besides the egg-eating contest (which I find I absolutely cannot watch), there’s the scene when Luke (recently recaptured after an escape attempt) is forced to dig a hole in the ground over and over, as well as endure beatings. Here the audience needs more than the usual amount of willpower. Rosenberg doesn’t give too much slack for the small in spirit, whether it be a character or a viewer (a trait he shared with Sidney Lumet, as evidenced in films such as “The Hill”).
It also helps that Rosenberg assembled a stellar cast to carry off this vision. Even the bit parts were filled by people who knew their craft. In the film you have Ralph Waite before “The Waltons”, Wayne Rogers before “M*A*S*H”, Anthony Zerbe, Lou Antonio, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper and others.
You also have George Kennedy who is brilliant, brilliant . . . brilliant. As Dragline he is clearly the Big Man among the inmates, brimming over with bluster and hard-won authority. But all too soon it’s easily seen that he is a small fish in a very small pond. He has been thoroughly broken in a way the prison staff want Luke to be broken, and any ripple in the safe and secure hole he’s pulled himself into causes uncertainty. But Luke’s audacity and fellow sense of style wins him over and, ultimately, fills him with the courage needed to make an extraordinarily brave (yet equally futile) attack against the eerily omnipotent Walking Boss (played by Morgan Woodward). If it can be claimed that Luke was responsible for a victory then here it is. Of all the Oscar nominations which “Cool Hand Luke” garnered, it was Kennedy who walked off with the Best Supporting Actor award (and righteously so).
Any collection of mean SOB’s in American film will have to include Strother Martin as the Captain (the man in charge of the road prison). Slow talking, given to sudden bursts of fury, Martin plays the role to the hilt and he ends up with many of the juiciest lines. The other Bosses and staff might be more openly sadistic, but all eyes immediately go to Martin because he readily convinces the audience (as well as the inmates) that he is the one true genuine source of pain in the prison.
By now you know my opinion of Paul Newman’s character in the film. But, as with Martin, all eyes immediately go to Newman because early on he presents us with the notion that he’s in the absolute last place he should be. Luke is balancing rather unsteadily on the edge of a knife, and its quickly recognized that his destination will be the worst his enemies can inflict. The audience is along for the ride and waiting for the inevitable train wreck.
Not that “Cool Hand Luke” is entirely grim, and it should come as no surprise that my own favorite moments come from the film’s lighter scenes. This includes a nicely entertaining poker game between the inmates, as well as a scene where the convicts are watching a rather well-built woman (played by the rather well-built Joy Harmon) slowly (and I mean s-low-ly) washing a car (lots of soapy suds, wet clothing and close rubbing up against a rather fortunate automobile). But these are exclamation points popped in between long paragraphs of sweat and agony. I don’t recommend “Cool Hand Luke” to people who prefer either happy endings or romance (or both). And, as I said, I tend to feel rather anxious about seeing someone (even someone I blame for making the predicament he’s in) undergoing senseless pain and humiliation at the hands of his fellow man. But Discomfort has seldom been filmed so effectively, or so brilliantly, and the conquering of one’s self goes far towards helping one appreciate this film.