Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

For CrazyFilmGuy's 100th Blog, I thought I would go back and visit the first grown up movie that I recall watching in my half a century of viewing films. I was staying with my grandparents in Fresno, California, sometime in the late 1960's but I did not see this film in a movie theater.  It was at a pizza parlor, Straw Hat Pizza if my memory serves me correctly on a 16mm print. The movie was COOL HAND LUKE (1967) starring Paul Newman as rule breaker Lucas "Cool Hand Luke" Jackson. I can't recall if the pizza was any good but I remember I liked parts of the movie and especially Paul Newman's anti-authoritarian hero.

For a young, impressionable kid, COOL HAND LUKE has a couple of memorable scenes that forever burned into my memory. The first scene is when a sexy young woman (Joy Harmon) washes her car while the chain gang convicts watch her as they cut down weeds on the nearby road. I won't try to recreate the scene in words but imagine a bunch of hard up prisoners (not to mention one geeky kid i.e. me) watching this voluptuous young lady splashing water and soap suds all over herself. You get the picture. The other scene is when Luke boasts he can eat fifty peeled eggs in an hour.  It's a humorous scene but it almost makes you want to throw up as egg after egg disappears down Luke's mouth. I thought Paul Newman's stomach might explode.

COOL HAND LUKE is an audacious first film by director Stuart Rosenberg who had labored in television previously. With a screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson based on Donn Pearce's novel, the hot, humid, sweaty world of a road prison's chain gang explodes from the screen thanks to famed cinematographer Conrad Hall's (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID; TEQUILA SUNRISE) beautiful camerawork. Some critics felt the photography was too gorgeous for a prison film but Rosenberg said he wanted to have a beautiful look offset the brutal conditions the prisoners inhabited. Lalo Schifrin's eclectic music with a nice guitar motif for Luke is fantastic too.

The film opens with drunk, aimless WWII war hero Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) cutting the heads off of parking meters (his revenge for parking tickets perhaps?). Luke is arrested and shipped off to a Division of Corrections Road Prison 36 somewhere in the South. Luke along with some other new prisoners including Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton) and Alibi (THE WALTON'S Ralph Waite) are met by the Captain aka warden (Strother Martin) who tells the men to "learn the rules." But Luke is a rule breaker. This isn't going to go well.

Luke is introduced to the other prisoners led by the alpha male Dragline (George Kennedy) who rules the roost and hands out nicknames to the prisoners like Koko, Rabbitt, Loudmouth Steve, and Cool Hand Luke. Luke learns that the prisoners have their own rules just like the correction system has its rules. Director Rosenberg shows us the brutally hot and dusty hard work the bull gang perform each day, cutting weeds along the country roads outside the prison, under the watchful eye of Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodard), known by the prisoners as "the man with no eyes" because he always wears mirrored sunglasses.

Luke doesn't follow the convict's rules right away to the ire of Dragline so he and Dragline have a sanctioned fight in front of the other prisoners on the weekend. Luke is pummeled by Dragline but keeps getting up. Luke starts to figure things out, endearing himself to his fellow inmates while wearing on the guards. When the Captain makes the prisoners tar a road one day, Luke takes it as a challenge and with the rest of the road crew finish the job two hours ahead of schedule, giving the men more time to rest. Later, Luke accepts a challenge that he can eat fifty eggs in one hour. Luke pulls it off...barely. It was "something to do" is Luke's logic when asked.

When Luke's mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) dies (a few months after visiting Luke in prison), the Captain puts Luke in the "box" to keep him from trying to go to the funeral. It doesn't work. The first chance Luke has on the road, he escapes. He's quickly caught. Luke escapes again, this time for a longer period but he's caught again. Boss Paul (Luke Askew) and Boss Shorty (Robert Donner) force Luke to dig and fill and dig a ditch over and over again until Luke breaks down physically and mentally. Luke loses the respect of the other convicts. But Luke's crazy like a fox. He tricks Boss Godfrey and Boss Paul again, stealing the keys to the prison dump truck as he pretends to be their stooge. This time Dragline jumps on board to escape with him. Luke and Dragline try to split up but wind up together in an abandoned church as the Captain, his Boss guards, and the police surround them for a final confrontation.

When I saw COOL HAND LUKE as a kid, all the religious symbolism went right over my head. Luke is a Jesus figure in the film and the other convicts are his apostles. When Luke takes too many punches from Dragline, it's like he's taken the punishment for each prisoner's sins. He won't give in to "the Man." After consuming fifty eggs, Luke lies out on a table in the crucifixion pose with arms stretched out as if he was on a cross. As Luke does these "miracles" like escaping from the chain gang multiple times or the egg eating contest or leading the road crew to pave a road in record time, he becomes a "messiah" or "savior" to the other convicts. He begins to change their routine world. But it comes with a price.

The inmates start to feed off his energy. When Luke does finally come crashing back down to earth, caught a second time and seemingly broken by the Captain and his guards, Luke loses the respect of his disciples. They take his food and look down at him. The Captain is like Pontius Pilate. Luke is a troublemaker, stirring up the masses (inmates). The Captain will have to deal with this problem. The guards are Roman centurions, dishing out punishment to the Christ-like Luke. At one point, Luke collapses into the ditch he's dug over and over again. Tramp watches from the bunkhouse, singing "Ain't no grave going to hold my body down." Luke rises from the grave, resurrected to trick the Captain and Boss guards by escaping a third time. But it doesn't last long. Luke is wounded by a bullet by Boss Godfrey. In one last religious image, Dragline helps Luke up, carrying Luke almost like Jesus carrying the cross to the top of the Mount.

I don't think I'd appreciate COOL HAND LUKE as much if it had been made in today's world of filmmaking say by Scorsese or Tarantino. Yes, there are a few scenes of brutality in LUKE but the filmmakers present a romanticized view of life in a road prison. For the most part, the prisoners get along with each other, if not good naturedly ribbing each other. They're making the best out of a bad situation. There's hardly any four letter swear words (it is 1967 after all). Only one or two inmates have tattoos.  The one thing missing are black convicts but since LUKE takes place after WWII, there may have been segregated work prisons at that time which might explain the lack of integration. Watch COOL HAND LUKE and imagine it remade in 2016. There would be four letter words flying around and probably a rape scene with one of the inmates and much more blood and brutality. It would lose its charm.  It wouldn't be the same kind of film.

COOL HAND LUKE is Newman and director Rosenberg's first of four collaborations together. They would work together on POCKET MONEY (1972) and THE DROWNING POOL (1975). It's hard to pick a favorite Paul Newman performance. There's "Fast" Eddie Felson from THE HUSTLER (1961), Lew Harper in HARPER (1965), or Butch Cassidy in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) to name a few of Newman's best roles but "Cool Hand" Lucas Jackson may be his finest work. Luke is cocky and another Newman anti-hero but he's not perfect. He's an underdog that never quite beats the system. Rosenberg would never top the critical success of COOL HAND LUKE although he would direct notable films like THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (1979) and another film set in prison this time with Robert Redford called BRUBAKER (1980).

The great George Kennedy would solidify his place as one of the best actors to cast as a friend or buddy of a superstar after his performance as Dragline opposite Newman's Luke in COOL HAND LUKE. Kennedy would win the 1967 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as Dragline. Dragline is a grizzly bear of a man with the heart of a teddy bear. Besides co-starring with Newman, Kennedy would co-star as Charlton Heston's buddy in EARTHQUAKE (1974) and AIRPORT '75 (1975); Clint Eastwood's pal in THE EIGER SANCTION (1975); and later as Leslie Nielsen's detective partner in THE NAKED GUN series. And I can't forget mentioning the great Strother Martin as the Captain. Martin also worked with Newman on several films like SLAP SHOT (1977). Martin provides us with the signature line of the film, telling Newman's aimless Luke, "What we've got here is ... failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach."

One of the joys of watching an ensemble film like COOL HAND LUKE is recognizing all the supporting actors who play prisoners and guards who would go on to have interesting and varied careers after LUKE. Wayne Rogers as Gambler would become famous as Trapper John on TV's MASH (1972 to 1975). Ralph Waite as the na├»ve Alibi would also parlay this role into another television show as the patriarch of the Walton family John Walton, Sr on TV's THE WALTONS (1971 to 1981). J.D. Cannon as the counterfeiter Society Red would play Dennis Weaver's police chief in TV's MCCLOUD (1970 to 1977).

Other actors in COOL HAND LUKE went on to prolific film careers. Dennis Hopper as the child-like Babalugats bummed around in small parts like TRUE GRIT (1969) before making it big in films like APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and BLUE VELVET (1986). Dog faced Harry Dean Stanton (Dean Stanton in LUKE) as Tramp has acted in countless films since COOL HAND LUKE including ALIEN (1979) and PARIS, TEXAS (1984). Other familiar character actors to spot include Clifton James (LIVE AND LET DIE) as Carr, Joe Don Baker (WALKING TALL) as Fixer, Lou Antonio (countless TV movies and shows including an episode of TV's STAR TREK) as Koko, and Anthony Zerbe (PAPILLON) as Dog Boy.

Having just blogged recently about Newman's contemporary Steve McQueen in THE SAND PEBBLES (1966), it's amazing how similar their careers were in many aspects. They both got into films in the late 1950's although Newman was a star sooner than McQueen. They did westerns, prison films, films about talented, cocky flawed men (billiards for Newman in THE HUSTLER; poker for McQueen in THE CINCINNATI KID). They were going to star together in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID but McQueen dropped out and Robert Redford got the part of the Sundance Kid instead. Both Newman and McQueen liked to race automobiles and made a film about race car driving (Newman in WINNING; McQueen in LE MANS). Finally, the would star together in Irwin Allen's skyscraper disaster picture THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974). Alas, McQueen would die at the age of 50 while Newman lived to be 83. But both were bona fide stars, the first choice of studios to play the edgy, cocky, anti-authority roles that defined their careers.

I wonder if Straw Hat Pizza showed COOL HAND LUKE since it was filmed around Stockton, California which isn't that far from Fresno where my grandparents lived. Whatever the rationale, I feel fortunate that the first grown up film I remember was such a profound, well made film. COOL HAND LUKE mixed drama with humor which was unusual for a story about chain gang prisoners. COOL HAND LUKE fit in perfectly with the times of the 1960's as people felt alienated and were fed up with "the Man." COOL HAND LUKE is one cool film.

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