Cool Hand Luke (1967): Paul Newman and George Kennedy (Who Won Oscar) Shine in Entertaining Prison Drama

Thematically, “Cool Hand Luke, ” a commercially popular, but poorly directed, chain gang film drew heavily on the gloomy Depression era drama, “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” starring Paul Muni, made in 1932.

Visually, there is hardly a single satisfying shot (let alone scene) in this film, directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who is better known as a writer.  But the helmer should get credit for casting a gloriously accomplished cast, which somehow rises above the directorial limitations.

End result is a vastly entertaining picture, which contains half a dozen good scenes, some of which became favorite among a growing cult following.

The tale’s anti-hero protagonist is James Allen (Paul Newman, at his best), a war hero down on his luck who’s sentenced to a chain gang, presided over by Strother Martin (George Kennedy). The governing law is represented by the prison guard who stands above the gang.

“Cool Hand Luke” had less to do with the conditions of American prisons than with the state of American society at large, defined by a culture that fails to provide employment and economic security.

Reflecting the zeitgeist, “Cool Hand Luke” was made at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1967, alongside such seminal films as “The Dirty Dozen,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” The Graduate,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”  All of these films, regardless of their specific genre, were highly critical of the status quo that prevailed in the public and domestic arenas in terms of norms and values.

As noted, Stuart Rosenberg, better known as a writer, assembled a great cast that included, other than Paul Newman and George Kennedy (who won the Best Supporting Oscar, see below), Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper, and Harry Dean Stanton.

Quote to Remember:

The line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” entered into movie lore and pop culture.

Actor Alert:

Paul Newman had auditioned for the part that James Dean ultimately got in Kazan’s “East of Eden.”  In that 1955 picture, Dean’s other (presumably better) brother was played by Richard Davalos, who in this film is cast as Blind Dick.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Screenplay (Adapted): Don Pearce and Frank R. Pierson

Actor: Paul Newman

Supporting Actor: George Kennedy

Music Score (original): Lalo Schifrin

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

In 1967, Paul Newman lost the Best Actor (his fourth nomination) to Rod Steiger, in for “In the Heat of the Night,” which also won Best Picture and Screenplay for Stirling Silliphant. Elmer Bernstein won the Scoring Oscar for the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

 

Cast

Paul Newman

George Kennedy

J.D. Cannon

Lou Antonioi

Robert Drivas

Strother Martin

Jo Van Fleet

Clifton James

Morgan Woodward

Luke Askew

Marc Cavell

Richard Davalos

Robert Donner

Warren Finnerty

Dennis Hopper

John McLiam

Wayne Rogers

Dean Stanton

Charles Tyner

Ralph Waite

Anthony Zerbe

Buck Kartalian

Joy Harmon

Jim Gammon

Joe Don Baker

Donn Pearce

Norman Goodwins

Charles Hicks

John Pearce

Eddie Rossen

Rush Williams

James Jeter

Robert Luster

Rance Howard

James Bradley, Jr.

Cyril “Chips” Robinson

 

Credits

A Jalem Production.

Produced by Gordon Carroll.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.

Screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, based on the novel by Donn Pearce.

Photographed by Conrad Hall.

Music by Lalo Shiffrin.

Film Editor, Sam O’Steen.

Art Director, Cary O’Dell.

Set Decorations, Fred Price.

Sound, Larry Jost.

Costume Design, Howard Shoup.

Makeup, Gordon Bau.

Hairstyles, Jean Burt Reilly.

Associate Producer, Carter DeHaven, Jr.

Production Manager, Arthur Newman.

Assistant Director, Hank Moonjean.

Shot on location in the San Joaquin area near Stockton, California.

Technicolor. Panavision.

Running time: 129 minutes.

 

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