MOVIE REVIEW: “Cool Hand Luke” stars Paul Newman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Cars ), George Kennedy (The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear, Airport), J.D. Cannon (McCloud [TV series], Scorpio), Lou Antonio (America America, The Phynx), Robert Drivas (Road Movie, Our Private World), Strother Martin (Slap Shot, The Wild Bunch), Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden, Cinderella ), Clifton James (Live and Let Die, Superman II), Morgan Woodward (Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Trek: The Original Series [TV series]), Luke Askew (Easy Rider, Frailty), Marc Cavell (The Man from the Alamo, The Wild Angels), Richard Davalos (Kelly’s Heroes, Hot Stuff), Robert Donner (High Plains Drifter, Vanishing Point), Warren Finnerty (The Connection, The Panic in Needle Park), and Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Speed). It is directed by Stuart Rosenberg (Question 7, The April Fools), and written by Donn Pearce (Love for Rent [TV Movie]) and Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon, A Star Is Born ). Based on a novel, this film follows Luke Jackson (Newman), a fairly reserved, former soldier who is sent to a prison camp for two years after screwing off parking meter heads. While in the Southern chain gang, Luke shows a rebellious nature, inspiring his inmate peers and challenging his authoritative figures.
“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.” I return in this desolate month of December with a classic: “Cool Hand Luke.” Why? The better question is, why not? It’s one of those American staples, pitting an everyman’s man (the legendary Paul Newman) against an authority that everyone can have a distaste for. Standing up to the man has been a strong theme in cinema for some time now, and is played in spades with this iconic feature based on a novel of the same name. On top of that, it’s a prison escape(ish) flick, so it’s got that going for it.
Where do I start with this one… well, let’s talk about the cast. Lead by a stellar performance from Mr. Paul Newman (who turns the character of Luke Jackson into something memorable), “Cool Hand Luke” offers an incredible ensemble crew made up of some terrific character actors. One of which is George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his role as Dragline (and deservedly so). I recalled seeing him in an old episode of “The Andy Griffith Show” while watching this, and couldn’t believe how magnetic he was in this role. Though almost a complete nobody when walking into this picture, he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Newman, crafting a role that was almost as memorable as Luke himself. I enjoyed their chemistry, as I did with the other inmates. I gathered similar vibes from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where a sole figure comes in to shake up the norm, and changes the minds of those around him for the better. Apparently, while on set, many of the actors weren’t given much direction when it came to embodying their roles; outside of their character type (and getting the lines), they all pretty much hung out in real life as they did on-screen, which I found fascinating.
Moving from the casting, we land on the cinematography, which impressed me incredibly. Conrad Hall… my goodness. His style was modern, with several artistic shots that made this story stand-out. It was astounding. So much so that the director got upset (in a joking way), saying “I wanted to craft a ruggest story, but Conrad made it look so beautiful.” An iconic series of shots has to be the several close-ups of Boss Godfrey (played by a silent Morgan Woodward) in his reflective sunglasses. Oh my gosh, were they awesome. Conrad’s use of composition and visual storytelling transcended the narrative. It’s not often that I take notice to cinematography in classic cinema; Mr. Hall made this an exception.
The story of “Cool Hand Luke” is one that you may have seen before: a man detests authority, creates an uprising, and is reprimanded for it. So it goes with any of your prison/entrapment flicks, but what makes this movie stand out in particular is its atmosphere and characters. Set in the deep south to a sometimes-smooth-sometimes-chaotic score by Lalo Schifrin, the story accentuates itself in the slow rumblings of meandering. Scenes depict the life on the camp yard and the struggles between the inmates. Often times, there’s no motion to progress the story, but rather have you live within the moments and with the characters. The narrative takes its time, but is sure to keep you engaged by the raw performances and development of the convicts to better understand them. Especially Luke, who leads a rather stubborn lifestyle. Seeing him get beat down time and time again was rough, and led to quite a few memorable moments that had me lost in the picture, namely the “Plastic Jesus” scene where Luke plays a banjo and sings in complete silence. It was poetic, and made me realize that it’s these moments that make me appreciate cinema. Beforehand, Newman didn’t know how to play the banjo, let alone have confidence to sing well; so, the scene was filmed last, and everyday Newman was taught the banjo on set. What a pro.
By the end of the film, I felt the journey. It was long and winding, but ultimately satisfying (albiet sad). And for the most part, there wasn’t a dull moment. I was whisked away to this world full of flawed men trying to survive in a system of rules; one where life gets mundane, only for someone to come in and change things. Rosenberg, the director, gave room for the story to breathe in many ways, to which I am grateful. It’s films like these that my generation cannot sleep on. Instead of looking for that next Netflix original Christmas movie that resembles the likes of Hallmark, why not wet your beak with a feature that stands the test of time? “Cool Hand Luke” is a wonderful picture with stellar performances, terrific cinematography, and a story that leaves you satisfied. FINAL SCORE: 97%= Juicy Popcorn
This movie has been inducted into The Juicy Hall of Fame.
Here is the trailer: