Cool Hand Luke (1967): Cult Prison Drama, Starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy, Who Won the Supporting Actor Oscar

Cool Hand Luke, a commercially entertaining prison drama, but unevenly directed by Stuart Rosenberg, offered Paul Newman one of his very best dramatic roles.

Thematically, this chain-gang film drew heavily on the gloomy Depression era drama, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni, which was made in 1932.

Grade: B (***1/2* out of *****)

Visually, the film is shapeless, despite Conrad Hall’s sharp imagery, perhaps because of Stuart Rosenberg’s inexperience; he is better known as a writer, and this was his feature directorial debut.

But Rosenberg should at least get credit for casting a gloriously accomplished cast, which somehow rises above his directing limitations.

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

The tale’s anti-hero protagonist is Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman, at his most handsome and very best), a war hero down on his luck.

 

He is sentenced to a chain gang, presided over by Clarence “Dragline” Slidell Martin (George Kennedy), who is determined to put Luke in his place with a set of rigid norms (he calls them “rules”).

 

The governing authority is represented by a series of ruthlessly dictatorial prison guards who stand above the gang–and above the law.

 

 

 

Set in the early 1960s, the film is based on Don Pearce’s 1965 book of the same title.  Pearce sold the story to Warner, but due to Pearce’s lack of experience, the studio hired Frank Pierson to rework the cranky script (both are credited, and their scenario was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay).

Newman’s character, Lucas Jackson, is described (by the notorious “Captain,” upon his arrival at the prison), as a “free spirit,” whose personal record (read out loud because of its unusual details) indicates that he was a man who started well in the U.S. Army.  He received medals for bravery in the Korea War and rose to the rank of Sergeant, yet he was ultimately discharged as a “buck” Private, due to consistent disciplinary issues.

Luke doesn’t question his physical incarceration, and initially has no thought of escape. But his spirit is noticeably defiant. This free thinking is, from the outset, noticed by the institution, its guards, and its leaders.

Reacting with both fear and loathing, they retaliate against Luke through physical punishment and psychological cruelty defined by sadism.

Some critics have suggested that Luke’s influence on his prison mates and the torture he endures, make him sort of a Jesus-like figure.

 

Christian symbolism is manifest throughout the film. In one crucial scene, Luke enters a church, where he talks to God, whom Luke blames for sabotaging him so he cannot win in life

The very end is particularly symbolic. Against the local police’s protests, the Captain decides to take Luke to the distant prison infirmary instead of the local hospital, ensuring Luke will not survive. As the car drives away, a semi-conscious Luke weakly smiles while the tires crush Godfrey’s sunglasses. After Luke’s implied death, Dragline and the other prisoners fondly reminisce about him.

Sometime later, the prison crew works near a rural intersection close to where Luke was shot. Dragline is now wearing leg irons, and there’s a new Walking Boss supervising. As the camera zooms out, the torn photo of Luke grinning with the two women has been taped back together and is superimposed on overhead view of the road junction, which is cross-shaped!

Upon its release, Cool Hand Luke received favorable reviews and was a huge commercial hit. Made on a budget of $3.2 million, the movie earned over $16 million at the box-office.

The film cemented Newman’s status as one of the era’s most bankable actors, a position he would maintain for another decade.

Film’s Title:

After winning a poker game by bluffing with a hand worth nothing, Luke says, “sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand,” which prompts Dragline to nickname him “Cool Hand Luke.”

Critical Status:

In 2005, the movie was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry, considering it to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Quotable Lines

The line used by Strother Martin’s prison warden, which begins with “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” occupies the 11th position on the AFI’s list of the 100 most memorable movie quotes.

“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 a touchstone of the era, made at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1967, alongside other seminal films, such 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 and heroes (or anti-heroes), were critical of the status quo–the establishment–that prevailed in the public and domestic arenas in terms of norms and values.

As noted, Rosenberg’s greatest achievement was in assembling 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.

 

Actor Alert:

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

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 Oscar (his fourth nomination) to Rod Steiger, who earned it 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 as Lucas “Luke” Jackson
George Kennedy as Clarence “Dragline” Slidell
Strother Martin as The Captain
Jo Van Fleet as Arletta Jackson
Joy Harmon as “Lucille”
Morgan Woodward as Walking Boss / Godfrey
Luke Askew as Boss Paul
Robert Donner as Boss “Shorty”
Clifton James as Carr, The Floor Walker
John McLiam as Boss Kean
Andre Trottier as Boss Popler
Charles Tyner as Boss Higgins
J. D. Cannon as “Society Red”
Lou Antonio as “Koko”
Robert Drivas as Steve “Loudmouth Steve”
Marc Cavell as “Rabbitt”
Richard Davalos as Dick “Blind Dick”
Warren Finnerty as “Tattoo”
Dennis Hopper as Babalugats
Wayne Rogers as “Gambler”
Harry Dean Stanton as “Tramp”
Ralph Waite as “Alibi”
Anthony Zerbe as “Dog Boy”
Buck Kartalian as “Dynamite”
Joe Don Baker as “Fixer” (uncredited)
James Gammon as “Sleepy” (uncredited)

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.