Nov. 11, 2008
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Grade: 53/100

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin

What it's about. Set in the South circa 1940. Paul Newman is a troublemaker who gets drunk one night and saws the heads off of parking meters. For this, he is given two years in a rural prison camp run by Strother Martin and his right hand man, shade-wearing rifle sharpshooter Morgan Woodward.

The ever rebellious Newman first has to prove his worth to his fellow prisoners, which include familiar faces Harry Dean Stanton, "Waltons" dad Ralph Waite, and future Easy Rider Dennis Hopper. King atop the prisoner social ladder is George Kennedy, a bully and loudmouth who eventually takes a shine to Newman. Jo Van Fleet has a solitary scene as Newman's sickly mother, who visits him at his prison camp.

Newman wins the respect of the convicts, first by beating them at poker, then by eating fifty hard boiled eggs to win a bet. Once he has their admiration, he makes a series of escape attempts, which yield inevitable results.

How others will see it. There is no law against women watching this movie. But Cool Hand Luke is tailor-made for a male audience. Those who prefer the dashing Paul Newman can choose from such romantic trifles as On the Terrace and The Young Philadelphians.

Cool Hand Luke is one of Paul Newman's most famous and admired films. It is best known for Strother Martin's nasal declaration, "What we have here, is a failure to communicate." Indeed so, since Martin expects subservience, and Newman re Luke can't help but thumb his nose at authority.

Mind you, Newman isn't defying the state government with noble deeds, such as fighting Jim Crow laws. No, he is doing stupid things that benefit no one, least of all himself. Nonetheless, many consider his character to be heroic, since he represents the irrepressible need for freedom and individual identity.

How I felt about it. But even liberty and personality should have a purpose. Presuming that it is even possible that a cook at a small work camp would hard boil fifty eggs to settle a bet among prisoners, what does it prove for one man to eat all fifty, unless the goal is to demonstrate disregard for your own health and life? The same comment goes double for a fool who would box a much bigger man, and not have the sense to stay down once it is obvious he is outclassed. The prison escapes follow the same concept of martyrdom to the Quiotic cause of futile rebellion against a clearly greater power. Hardly something to admire in a man.

So, the movie's primary theme, while presented in entertaining style, is essentially bogus. Cool Hand Luke is otherwise memorable for a surreal scene where the chain gang on hard labor duty collectively drools over a curvaceous and oblivious young woman in skimpy clothes washing her car in the manner of an exotic dancer, mere feet away from the hooting prisoners. I can think of no other major motion picture where lust is presented among a group of grown adults in such cartoonish fashion.