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Cool Hand Luke
Savant Blu-ray Review

Cool Hand Luke
Warner Home Entertainment
1967 / Color / 2.40:1 widescreen / 126 min. / Street Date September 9, 2008 / 28.99
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Clifton James, Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, Marc Cavell, Richard Davalos, Warren Finnerty, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Tyner, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, Buck Kartalian, Joy Harmon.
Conrad Hall
Art Direction Cary Odell
Film Editor Sam O'Steen
Original Music Lalo Schifrin
Written by Donn Pearce, Frank R. Pierson
Produced by Gordon Carroll
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Cool Hand Luke is director Stuart Rosenberg's first feature film, and probably his best. None of Rosenberg's subsequent Paul Newman films scored a big hit, but Luke's timing couldn't have been better. Day-to-day movie reviewers were just dawning to the notion that 'safe' characters and happy endings weren't essential for Hollywood star vehicles; Newman's troubled loner Luke is a less challenging variation on his iconic Hud., a charming rebel instead of a selfish stud.

Cool Hand Luke is as funny as a chain gang movie can be, and still be serious. Its unhappy hero is a lost soul who nevertheless inspires his fellow inmates. Even as it reruns the motif of the Free Man vs. the impersonal "System", Luke takes pains not to implicate the audience in its hero's problems. Audiences ate it up. It wasn't for In the Heat of the Night, an even bigger "safe" movie about social issues, Paul Newman and his writers Donn Pierce and Frank Pierson might have taken home Oscars.

Warners' Blu-ray disc does justice to the craft of cameraman Conrad Hall, whose beautiful images showcase Paul Newman at his photogenic best.


Caught in an act of drunken vandalism, aimless ex-G.I. Luke (Paul Newman) earns himself a stint on the Southern work farm run by "The Captain" (Strother Martin). Luke soon wins over his bunkmates and learns the ins and outs of life on the chain gang. Alpha male inmate Dragline (George Kennedy) at first resents Luke's general charisma, but he's impressed when Luke refuses to quit in a fight, and from then on is a staunch booster. Most of the inmates have personal problems, to say the least, and Luke's cocky non-conformism becomes a communal focus point. All know that Luke's noncommittal attitude masks a fervent desire to escape. But he's captured and returned more than once. Prisoners that cause the guards to lose face are allowed only so much slack, and The Captain's patience with Luke is running out.

Cool Hand Luke is a sentimental favorite with excellent acting from Paul Newman and good support from an impressive list of actors. The guys in the bunkhouse are a collection of faces on the way up: J.D. Cannon, Clifton James, Robert Drivas, Ralph Waite, Wayne Rogers, Harry Dean Stanton. Dennis Hopper was just finding his way back into mainstream films after several years in exile. After playing glorified bits for over twenty years, the venerable Strother Martin found instant immortality with the words, "What we've got here is ... failure to communicate." That line crystallized America's general state of anxiety in 1967, with concerns like Vietnam, race riots and the Kennedy assassination.

Paul Newman's Luke is a fresh take on a familiar character. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Luke has a bad habit of bucking the system with no particular goal in mind. The script is careful to leave his disillusion unexplored. Luke's a decorated war veteran, a detail perhaps added to gain sympathy with Straight America. He also loves his mother. Suffering from Cancer, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) visits the prison lying in the back of a pickup truck. Luke's family has apparently ostracized him, but he was always Arletta's favorite. What went wrong? Was it that girl who dumped him? The best thing in the movie, Arletta's scene seems detached from the movie, like the half-dreamed "mother" sequence in Bonnie and Clyde.

Although adapted from a novel by one of its screenwriters, Cool Hand Luke returns to the familiar ground of the old standby I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang. The guards range from benign Bible types to an evil cuss who dwells snake-like behind a pair of mirrored sunglasses -- distilling the filmmakers' vision of cruel authority. In some shots the sunglasses practically fill the Panavision frame, which makes us wonder how Conrad Hall hides the reflection of the camera. Some fairly fuzzy Jesus symbolism finds its way into the film, as when Luke assumes the cross position in the celebrated egg-eating scene. Having Luke converse with God at the end is dramatically effective but also pretentious. Luke is ingratiating but not particularly profound, and the film must rely on Newman's star qualities to carry the show. Newman hadn't yet acquired the kind of character-actor gravity that would sustain him through thirty more years' worth of good movies.

Technically, it's all there; every scene has visual interest and engaging character interaction. The film's biggest laugh comes when Ol' Luke (wink wink) fools his guards one more time, escaping in one of their own pickup trucks. The scene in which Luke must dig and re-dig a hole forces us to sympathize with his situation. It's more effective but less economical than its source, a throwaway torture perpetrated on Montgomery Clift's similar loser-martyr in the celebrated From Here to Eternity.

Time hasn't been kind to the bunkhouse camaraderie. The various losers and oddballs pull standard star support duty, leaving Luke to fill the role of Prince of the Prison by default. George Kennedy is certainly animated as Dragline, a drawling, outspoken good-ol-boy with more sass than brains. Audiences found Dragline amusing, and Kennedy took home a surprise Oscar for Supporting Actor.

With its tragic but heartfelt ending Cool Hand Luke charmed Middle America. Mass audiences prefer their allegories free of political implications, as was demonstrated by the failure of Kirk Douglas's somewhat similar Lonely are the Brave from a few years previous. Ultimately, we care about Luke's plight because he's our charismatic favorite Paul Newman. The film's positive word of mouth concentrated on comedic highlights: the parking meters, the "Dashboard Jesus" song, the gratuitous scene of Joy Harmon washing a car with various soapy body parts, while the road gang goes nuts.

Warner Home Video's of Cool Hand Luke is a dazzler on Blu-ray, showing how Conrad Hall's dramatic lighting and dynamic choice of lenses benefit a show. The hues are deep and rich; when a strong color is used, it really makes an impact. The added resolution on Blu-ray enriches the details and does wonders for Newman's expressive eyes -- in close-ups we can practically see his irises open and contract.

Eric Lax's full-length commentary is heavy on Paul Newman biographical detail. The docu A Natural Born World-Shaker carries the making-of saga to overlength but compensates with input from key personnel, including the writers, producer and many of the actors. A trailer is included as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cool Hand Luke Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good - Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary, long-form interview docu
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 10, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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