The '60s were a firebrand for cinema. With the relaxing of the Production Code, the disintegration of the studio system, and the continuing influence of exploitation, Hollywood tempted fate by formulating entertainments strategically in sync with the volatile social clime. Sometimes, the efforts were as cockeyed and hokey as the Golden Era classicism that came before it. But in rare instances, old world stardom met with cutting edge commentary to create a perfect counterculture allegory. Cool Hand Luke was such a sobering statement. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Donn Pearce, this story of a Florida chain gang and the rebellious inmate who fought mightily against the 'establishment' struck a chord with audiences eager to see the current corrupt system brought to its knees. Oddly enough, some forty years later, this masterful film is just as powerful as when it played to a primed peace generation.
Instantly beloved by the grubby population of a Florida prison, Luke Jackson becomes an inspiration to a group of chain gang convicts. Primary among the rabble is Dragline, a dopey, dense, good ol' boy who quickly befriends the na´ve newcomer. Inspiring the men with his indomitable spirit, Luke finds himself butting heads with The Captain, a shifty Southern warden with a definite desire for "communication" between himself and the inmates. With Luke always trying to escape (and inevitably getting recaptured), the prison is determined to break our hero's will. When they do, the men lose faith in their friend. Finally, Luke and Dragline make one last mad attempt at freedom. A showdown at a local church suggests that no matter how "cool" his friend may be, those in power will stop at nothing to see their authority remain strong and intact.
Cool Hand Luke is one sly cinematic trick. It starts out like your standard prison picture, takes a couple of detours into heavy handed preaching, and then wraps up in ways that suggest the Bible as interpreted by Abby Hoffman. Becoming a pure pop phenom at the time (no schoolyard/college campus was without their Strother Martin impersonator) and still a might powerful today, it contains the best work done by George Kennedy, an equally amazing turn by the always potent Paul Newman, and enough steamy Southern swamp water to melt your Messianic pretenses. It represents the major studio debut by director Stuart Rosenberg (who would work again with his leading actor on the equally effective Drowning Pool) and some deft production from Jack Lemmon's company Jalem. While the premise was really nothing new - the prison camp had been a favorite of filmmakers since the earliest days of the artform - Cool Hand Luke was one of the few efforts that wanted to provoke the Conservative consensus of a nation at war with itself. It argued that not 'all' men were created equal, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and you can't fight a drawling, dangerous city hall - in this case, a mean spirited and spiteful Captain.
The inability - nay, the refusal - to conform is at the heart of this fascinating film, and no one is better at encompassing this highly personal paradigm than Newman. Sure, some of the story comes off as borderline sanctimonious, our hero beaten and humiliated in an obvious attempt to break his brimming spirit. You can almost see the crown of thorns cradled gently atop Luke's sweat slicked faced. Of course, Newman's Roman features and baby blue eyes help sell the savior stance. But Rosenberg (working from a script by Pearce and Cat Ballou scribe Frank Pierson) doesn't just deify Luke. There are moments of real humanity, like the faked photo of our lead and the two lovely ladies. Or the standout sequence where Luke's muscled body becomes bloated and sick with dozens of hard boiled eggs. All throughout the film, we are meant to see Newman as everyman - rational, contemplative, aching for freedom, and realizing the often futile (and eventually fatal) reality of his confrontational ways. While Martin and Kennedy (who won his only Oscar for this film) frequently steals scene from him, especially when the latter ogles a buxom gal washing a car, our lead levels the often obvious message. In one of the many movies where he deserved an Oscar, Newman lost to another stunning performance - Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night.
And in our current cattle call mentality where we can't determine leadership qualities from media-made buzzwording, Cool Hand Luke seems even more mutinous. Bucking the tempting trend is not our current culture's greatest strength. We tend to submit like sheep, even when we can see that such acquiescence goes against our better judgment or interests. While Luke appears to give in during the last act of the film, sobbing that he'll consent in order to avoid another punishment, we can see the ruse. We recognize that, sometimes, the best point of attack is from the inside out. Cool Hand Luke is all about making the Establishment your bitch, even if said social shrew ends up biting you in the ass. Luke is never really down, just slyly determined. Dragline can see this at the end - that's why the man moves so easily from fellow convict to myth. In fact, the strongest sentiment this film offers is the notion that, sometimes, sacrifice is necessary to instill a sense of purpose and inspiration in others. Luke is supposed to be a liberator - he's the downtrodden's reminder of what it's like to be a person. Never quitting and refusing to surrender, even with the odds stacked high against him, he is more than just a man. He is all mankind.
Fully restored and expertly remastered, this new Deluxe Edition of Cool Hand Luke looks absolutely marvelous. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is dense and colorful, the contrasts expertly controlled with minor source defects like grain kept to a minimum. Even better, the various atmospheric touches used by Rosenberg to suggest Luke's lonely battle are perfectly realized. Even in the darkest, most dimly lit environment, this spectacular transfer delivers the goods.
Thankfully, instead of trying to flesh out the old school Mono with some newfangled, newly remastered multichannel mix, Warner Brothers merely cleans up the original track, and the results are excellent. We get no ambient noise, clear conversations and dialogue, and Lalo Schifrin's score is rock solid and radiant. While lacking the depth some come to expect from the digital medium, the aural elements here are very good indeed.
There are two main bits of added content for this new DVD release. The first is a full length audio commentary by historian/Newman biographer Eric Lax. Winner of the Basil Fawlty award for frequently restating the 'bleeding obvious', the narrative is overrun with already evident insights, unnecessary repetition, and way too much hero worship. We want a better understanding of the film in general, not a lesson in allegorical blatancy. Better is the new half hour documentary on the making of the movie. Featuring input from everyone including Pearce, co-stars Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, Lalo Schifrin, Hank Moonjean, and Joy Harmon, some archival words from Rosenberg, as well and a few choice anecdotes by Pierson, Kennedy, Lou Antonio and Lax, it's a delightful revisit of an important motion picture milestone. Newman's absence is noticeable, but almost unnecessary. As an enigmatic hero meant to instill all manner of interpretations in the viewer, having the star on hand to provide his motivations might just tarnish the film's open ended appeal.
There's no denying this movie's motives. It's not trying to be some kind of novel genre revisionism, or a dramatic deconstruction of the typical good guy/bad guy dynamic. Instead, Cool Hand Luke is the best kind of cinematic statement, one that doesn't constantly overplay its hand while still resorting to structural stunts like straightforward symbolism and potent political commentary. Deserving a score of Highly Recommended, this is the kind of film that reinvigorates your sense of the artform, that proves that motion pictures can be more than star turns, CGI, directorial bravado, and mindless market pandering. Sometimes, a character can accurately reflect the entire enterprise they inhabit. Like its lead, Cool Hand Luke is a movie that never surrenders. By sheer force of will, via guts and limited grandstanding, it says its peace and then passes on into legend. The fact that it manages to resonate after forty years suggests that such mythologizing is more than warranted.
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