This week, Johann Koehler of Cambridge University follows his excellent guest review of The Sting with his take on another Paul Newman classic. Over to Johann, with my warmest thanks:
This weekend’s movie recommendation is Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967), adapted for the screen from Donn Pearce’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, and starring Paul Newman in the title role.
The film begins with Luke’s arrest for decapitating parking metres during a drinking binge. The plot elides his trial and sentencing, and skips straight to his arrival at a local ‘road prison’, where the Captain (played by Strother Martin) quickly identifies his new prisoner’s nonconformity, as evidenced by Luke forfeiting recognition for distinguished service during the war. The ensuing film is a heady mix of sharp dialogue, impeccable character development and fine cinematography, all of which is steeped in Southern lyricism and religious allegory.
Luke’s nonconformity forms the mystery that much of the film seeks to unravel. Whenever he is questioned about where his inability to adhere to rules comes from, Luke’s response is either cryptic or it is nonchalant. What we can discern, however, is that much of his nonconformity is intrinsically bound up with his extraordinary tenacity. Luke occupies much of his time in the first half of the film setting himself tasks that require fulfilling meaningless goals, ranging from boxing far above his weight to betting on how much he can eat. The rest of the inmates find his tenacity contagious, and Luke’s charisma infects them with the desire to finish the arbitrary tasks the prison guards set for them in much shorter time than they would otherwise require. The script hops quickly between each of these tasks without letting the viewer become too wrapped up in the profound sadness and pathos that saturate the simplicity of the prisoners’ existence.
In addition to Martin’s Captain, the film is replete with magnificent supporting performances, including by George Kennedy as Luke’s best friend Dragline, Jo Van Fleet as his mother Arletta, and a host of familiar faces including Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper. Look fast as well for a brief cameo by the real-life subject of the film, Donn Pearce.
The cinematography is superb. The film is punctuated by key moments in which Rosenberg relies heavily on extreme close-ups, allowing minute facial expressions to do the work that he chooses the dialogue should not. For instance, both the brutality of Luke’s boxing match with Dragline and the devastating sadness upon hearing the news of Arletta’s death are neatly captured by the close-up shots of the actors’ faces. It’s such a relief when a director provides the space for an actor’s talent to breathe on the screen, instead of the wearisome modern dependence on split-second moves between dozens of camera angles in an effort to imbue scenes with drama.
The ultimate message of the film isn’t so much one of redemption as it is one of reconciliation with loss and resignation to one’s fate. If you’re looking for an uplifting film to start off 2013, look elsewhere. However, if you’re looking to immerse yourself in a beautifully nuanced and thought-provoking world, look no further than Cool Hand Luke.
p.s. Knowing RBCer’s fondness for movie trivia, I’ll give kudos to anyone who can answer the following: Luke is assigned the number 37 upon his arrival at the prison. Without searching Google, do any erstwhile Sunday-schoolers know what Luke 1:37 says, off-by-heart? Hint: it refers to Luke’s unshakeable tenacity.