The Oscar-winning Cool Hand Luke makes its arrival on 4K UHD as Warner Bros. celebrates the studio’s 100th anniversary.
“What we’ve got here is…failure to communicate.” – Captain (Strother Martin)
The thing that surprises me the most about Cool Hand Luke is that a Jewish filmmaker is directing a film that is very heavy on Christian imagery. Most of this imagery goes above my head because I’m not familiar with the text as I am with the Torah. I only know this because I was once offered extra credit in a Hebrew Bible class in college if I had written about the film. Yeah, I know–it makes zero sense. But anyway, it’s a solid film if one looks at it without thinking of any of the themes.
Cool Hand Luke is a film that features the criminals as the heroes. Even though Paul Newman is playing a criminal, it’s hard to root against him. His character, Lucas “Luke” Jackson, is a drunk and despite winning so many medals during World War 2, he is falling towards rock bottom. This results in Luke getting a two-year sentence to a chain gang. Captain and rifleman Walking Boss/Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) run the place. Dragline (George Kennedy) is the leader of the prisoners. The two of them get into a fight because Luke isn’t having any of it. Eventually, Dragline stops and Luke’s fellow prisoners grow a newfound respect for the man. In any event, Dragline gives him a new nickname, which serves as the film’s title.
Luke escapes a number of times but always gets recaptured. Punishment is always severe but he goes so far as to even mail a magazine to the prison with his photo in it. This is hardly the stuff that escapees would be doing unless they just want to brag about escaping. Nobody wants to see the star of the film killed off but that’s exactly what happens here. Regardless, Newman absolutely sells his performance. The actor was looking to become a director at this point in his career. Even though he might not have been immediately on board with what director Stuart Rosenberg wanted, Newman was still 100% in his acting. This role requires a great actor and that’s exactly what they got in Paul Newman.
My first viewing came on Sunday night and let me tell you, I’ve watched plenty of George Kennedy this year. Aside from The Dirty Dozen and Airport, most of what I’ve watched him in is The Naked Gun trilogy. I had no idea that the actor was a previous Oscar winner. Thanks to filmmakers taking their time in casting the film, they’re able to build up George Kennedy’s role. Kennedy might have been a character actor going into the film but wow, the man can hold his own against someone with Newman’s stature. Both Newman and Kennedy would get Oscar nominations, with Kennedy being the film’s only win. Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson’s script was nominated as was Lalo Schifrin’s score. Portions of Schifrin’s score would be used by ABC’s Eyewitness News.
If you told me that the screenplay was from the co-writer of Cat Ballou, I wouldn’t have believed you. Of course, it’s hard to believe that Pierson is the same writer that would win an Oscar for Dog Day Afternoon. In any event, the film was first pitched to Columbia Pictures but they ultimately passed on it. It eventually made its way to Warner Bros. Pearce and Pierson wrote the script to Paul Newman’s strengths.
I’m honestly surprised that Conrad Hall’s cinematography doesn’t get an Oscar nomination. He somehow finds a way to make horrid living conditions look so stunning. It feels so criminal in that regard. The outside scenery was always going to look stunningly glorious but the inside scenery has no right to be this good. I’m not going to suggest remaking the film but no prison should ever look this glorious inside. Not now, not ever!
Cool Hand Luke harkens back to an earlier era in Warner Bros. when they made gangster and chain gang films but this one is elevated by the likes of Paul Newman and George Kennedy.
DIRECTOR: Stuart Rosenberg
SCREENWRITERS: Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson
CAST: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Robert Drivas, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, and Jo Van Fleet
Warner Bros.-Seven Arts released Cool Hand Luke in theaters on October 31, 1961. Grade: 4/5
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