Thursday, October 2, 2008

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Paul Newman was the the most pensive American film rebel and nonconformist. He didn't mumble out lines like, “What have you got?” when asked by a girl what he was rebelling against like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). (Most girls would likely be asking Newman other questions in his films.) He didn't furiously, indignantly scream, “You're tearing me apart!” like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Newman played characters who knew the game called life was rigged, at least to a frightening extent. Sometimes his portrayals allowed for the character to fight back, to win just one for the good guys, most famously so in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982). Often, however, his onscreen avatars were knowing men, soused in realism and lightly-tinted weltschmerz. In The Rack (1956), the laconic Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr. shrinks in the searing shadow of his father (played by a perfectly cast Walter Pidgeon). The Rack precisely laid the cinematic groundwork for Newman, especially in terms of what to expect from the actor. He played real men. His captain broke when tortured. His heroism was confined to the ennui of the real world. He felt shame, yes, and regret, but also, bewilderment. Not too much in the way of evinced self-pity, but a profound recognition of the fundamental unfairness of life. His Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun (1958) was a tumultuous, scary and choleric individual, a man ostensibly stuck in a kind of perpetual adolescence, a man made violent by the overwhelming dearth of sorrow attached to the more miserable aspects of life. Newman's characters had a certain cognoscitive capability, a way of burrowing into truths while beaming at the opportunity to miss whatever apparent lesson that was to be had. And his anti-heroicism had to have a certain blistering quality at the time his latest picture was released. That quality, however, was usually blanketed in a kind of disarming humor. The most obvious example would have to be Newman's Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Newman's Butch simply kicked an adversary between the legs because that seemed the most effective manner of combat. Newman could play an outright heel, however. His portrait of Hud (1963) was a performance forged by dualistic factualities concerning the fate of his younger brother. Hud knew he was a bastard, and he knew his little brother's infatuation with him was disastrous, so he did everything he possibly could to disenchant his sibling.

The transitional performance, and perhaps the transitional film, was Cool Hand Luke (1967). If Newman was in certain ways, a kind of glamorous, graceful and gorgeous Humphrey Bogart (the 1966 private-eye picture Harper helps to invite such a comparison), then Cool Hand Luke is the film in which he powerfully transcended his own fictive personality, in a way that does remind one of Bogart's exterior hardness and apathetic callousness mutating into an almost messianic selflessness before the conclusion of Casablanca. In each case, an iconic cinematic statement about the nature of rebellion, and nonconformity, was made. And messianic is a truer adjective with regards to Cool Hand Luke, a film that openly wears its Christ allegory out in the open. 1967 brought forth such a virulent rebelliousness, exhibited in untamed performances of wild people, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Point Blank, Hombre (another Newman picture, about a white man raised by American Indians charged with protecting ungrateful, racist whites), Tony Rome, The Dirty Dozen, Who's That Knocking at My Door, Hour of the Gun and Don't Look Back. Other examples would soon follow, such as Easy Rider.

Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman as Luke, a World War II veteran who for no particular reason starts lopping off the heads of parking meters one night in a small Southern town. He finds himself serving two years on a chain gang for his “chewing up of municipal property.” The film was shot just north of Stockton, California, but somehow cinematographer Conrad Hall evokes a Southern warmth and verity, shooting golden landscapes in a manner that today seems intangibly linked to Burnett Guffey's lensing of the same year's Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, and with a screenplay written by Donn Pearce, who wrote the novel, and Frank Pierson, the film is most pointedly a Christ allegory. Given the importantly Christian name of Luke, with the number “37” imprinted on his prison uniform (Luke 1:37: “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” a point with which the film thematically wrestles), Newman's character is a challenging, involving modification of Christ.

Luke quickly stands out as the “fresh meat,” and like Christ, is feasted upon by those who love him, metaphorically and physically. George Kennedy's Dragline is the king in the prison hierarchy, and resents Luke's inability to be subservient. A sanctioned fight between the two impressively demonstrates the role of the martyr Newman's Luke will inhabit in this drama, as he is beaten down by the imposing and powerful Dragline. However, Luke is victorious in defeat, as he is simply unwilling to lay down and admit to his loss. He earns the respect of everyone, most emphatically Dragline, who becomes his primary booster and fan. Later, Luke wagers that he can eat fifty eggs in one hour, something few believe is possible. He goes through a grueling regimen to increase space in his stomach for a little while with Dragline as his manager. He sits on his bunk with a towel draped over his head, in an image that recalls Christ's musty, bloodstained countenance pressed in the shroud. The bet's anagogical and numinous subtext becomes almost embarrassingly plain when probed, manifesting the film's innermost concerns. There are fifty inmates at Luke's prison. Eggs representing Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, Luke's consumption of fifty eggs draws the New Testament's crucial description of Christ absorbing the sins of the world (and in this manner, the last egg, which nearly costs him to lose his bet, could be interpreted as his own, which just barely manages to succumb to his ingestive endeavor. After going through with his own personal experiment and becoming just barely triumphant, as the prisoners who watched for an hour like the spectacle was the greatest sporting event they had ever witnessed, disperse, Luke is left alone, the prison's martyr, its hope, its source of strength for all of the inmates. Carefully, the scene concludes with Luke stretched out, Christlike, his arms and legs positioned in a manner that cannot help but stir imagery derived from Christian art of the figure of the crucified Christ.

What Cool Hand Luke represents most is the exaltation of the bullheaded, stubborn anti-conformist, the man Newman had played before in sundry incarnations and temperaments, the transcendence of that personage into a kind of figure of adoration and inspiration for the beaten down and oppressed. Mutual alienation spawns respect and love. A loner finds unusual uncommon cause, something he could not find in the military. The Captain, played to imperious perfection by Strother Martin, notes the success Luke found in the war. Luke became a Sergeant and accumulated a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and at least a couple of Purple Hearts, but he exited as a “Buck Private,” just as he entered. “I was just passin' time, Captain,” Luke unapologetically explains. Naturally, Luke's fierce individualism clashes almost instantly with the asphyxiating and smothering obtruding “rules and regulations,” as he says to Dragline. Jo Van Fleet has a small but important part as Luke's mother, who wishes that she could somehow share the attributes of a dog. “You know, sometimes I wish, people was like dogs, Luke. Comes a time, a day like, when the bitch just don't recognize the pups no more, so she don't have no hopes nor love to give her pain. She just don't give a damn.”

Luke's doubts about God are made fascinatingly, metaphorically symbolical illustrations of the worst, most tortured and spiritually agonizing moments of Christ. As they work the road, and it begins to rain, Luke openly questions whether or not God has any substantial power over nature and his life. “Knock it off, Luke,” Dragline admonishes. “You can't talk about Him that way.” As the inmates must address the “masters” as “boss,” Luke interestingly refers to God as the ultimate “boss”: “Are you still believin' in that big bearded Boss up there? Ya think He's watchin' us?” As Luke allows the rain to freely wash over him, cleansing him as he looks skyward, his words echo the indomitable outlook of Christ after Dragline asks what may be the most pointed question in the film, “Aren't you scared of dyin'?” “Dyin'? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Ya hear that? Are ya hearin' it? Come on. You're welcome to it, old-timer. Let me know You're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it... I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself.”

Immediately after hearing about the death of his mother, Luke plays his banjo and sings a stinging, emotionally devastating parody of the coarse pop gospel song, “Plastic Jesus,” singing:

“Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin' on the dashboard of my car.

Comes in colors, pink and pleasant, glows in the dark cause it's iridescent Take it with you when you travel far.

Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell

Goin' ninety, I ain't scary (rather than 'wary'), 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.

Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell

Goin' ninety, I ain't scary, 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.”

Cool Hand Luke is a film of a certain ravishing poignancy, and possesses a deeper sociopolitical message with a portrayal of religious transmogrification without being sententious. Late in the film, Luke asks for God to speak to him in His house, a church, as he is seemingly cornered by enemies after he has gone on the run one too many times. The answer is twofold, and differing in meaning depending on what matters most to the reader of the lesson (whether in the Bible or Cool Hand Luke). What ultimately concludes the picture, however, is the visage of Dragline telling the inmates all about the beauty of the man behind the asperity of his disposition. That was most markedly visible due to Luke's—Newman's—magnificent smile. Unlike Bogart or Brando, Newman's beaming grin was a nearly irresistible beckoning of the viewer to join in on his fun, to partake in the scrappy, roguish charm the man radiated so tremendously.

Describing the last time he saw Luke, Dragline notes, “He was smiling... That's right. You know, that... that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't gonna a-beat 'im. That old Luke smile. Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.”

17 comments:

Tony D'Ambra said...

Alexander, this is a beautiful elegy to a personification that inspires both believers and non-believers, and to the man that so profoundly realised it.

You have shown me so much I have missed in this cherished film. Thank you.

On the day of Newman's passing, I heard a radio interview with the writer, A.E. Hotchner, who with Newman started Newman's Own Salad Dressing company in the 1980s, all the profits of which are donated to charities. Hotchner mentioned that his friend of 40 years was transformed by his role in Cool Hand Luke into the man who in his later years valued his philanthropic work above all else.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you greatly for those very kind and considerate words, Tony. I'm pleased you found this piece as informative as you did!

Thank you also for relating that story. Quite interesting and it makes a great deal of sense. Newman's Cool Hand Luke performance has that intangible quality: a movie star has become something more, he's become part of American culture, a veritable staple of the cinema and an intimidatingly iconic figure. I can certainly see how this picture would stir Newman to value his philanthropic work above all else.

Sam Juliano said...

I do not want to give this spectacular-looking essay anything but top-drawer consideration, so when I come home from a matinee film with my wife and kids I will get on the computer, read it through and post an appropriate comment!

Alexander Coleman said...

Have much fun at your matinee, Sam. (Is this the little dog movie?)

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, you're seeing Blindness.

Sam Juliano said...

I never got to see BLINDNESS, Alexander, as the they had serious problems at the theatre with the sound, so I wound up joining my family (eher I should have been in the first place)and saw that terrible BEVERLY HILLS CHIHUAWA. LOL!

I am convined after reading yet another painstaking analytical thematic essay by Alexander Coleman, that this young man has a serious writing career ahead of him. I continue to be in awe of the sentences he writes, the unified paragraphs he ties together and the use of dazzling vocabulary and construction.

The excellent overview of Newman in paragraph one, discussing the varying qualities he exhibited in a variety of roles, is followed by a rightful acknowledgement of Newman's Luke as a "transitional role" in a "transitional film." I never looked at that way, but he's completely right, and it makes sense in the way he frames the actor's career role swings.
The next three paragraphs of this superlative academic analysis of the seminal film (a film that oddly left me cold initially, but have come to reassess more favorably--truth is Luke is every bit as cold and detached as Hud Bannon and Eddie Felson)examines Luke as a Christ-like figure and brilliantly makes a most persuasive argument to make it seem as if Rosenberg set out deliberately to make this thematic tie-in. Perhaps he did. In any case, it gives the character profound dimension and thus the film a penetrating underercurrent that enables one to interpret it on more than a literal level, a rare attribute for American films at this time apart from Nichols' THE GRADUATE and Penn's BONNIE AND CLYDE.
The presentation of the "plastic Jesus" lyrics at the end make the thematic examination full circle.

This is truly a consumate, alltogether fascinating piece of film criticism. I am simply running out of superlatives for Alexander Coleman. His passion for Paul Newman could not have found a more eloquent and studied voice than it did in this film, which I think edges HUD, BUTCH CASSIDY and THE STING as the actor's most popular.

Sam Juliano said...

I left out further commendation. Now here is sentence that deserves to be printed again:

"COOL HAND LUKE is a film of a certain ravishing poignancy, and possesses a deeper sociopolitical message with a portrayal of religious transmorgification without being sententious."

Great stuff.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you yet again for your warmly ebullient comments, Sam, I'm overwhelmed! Thanks, most sincerely.

I must confess, your point about Luke being as cold as Hud and Eddie and numerous other Newman characterizations, is very much true, Sam. Cool Hand Luke is the film of Newman's that seems to most properly be termed as a picture that is finally greater than the sum of its parts, but it is those parts that do contribute to its tapestry, which it carries like a dosser. George Kennedy serves as a kind of window through which the audience is allowed to relate to Luke, which is a reversal of most films like this (though I notice that The Shawshank Redemption pivoted its character study in a similar manner with the veteran prisoner representing the audience's eyes with regards to the newcomer).

Then, of course, there is that famous line. "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Taken on the level of the spiritually metaphysical, this quotable remark can also be seen as the failure of Luke to communicate with the big bearded Boss, including the scene near the end in the church.

Thank you again, greatly, Sam.

Tony D'Ambra said...

In case anyone missed the news, TCM (USA) is suspending scheduled programming on Sunday, October 12 for a special Paul Newman Tribute movie marathon:

6:00AM The Rack
8:00AM Until They Sail
10:00AM Torn Curtain
12:15PM Exodus
3:45PM Sweet Bird of Youth
6:00PM Hud
8:00PM Somebody Up There Likes Me
10:00PM Cool Hand Luke
12:15AM Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
2:15AM Rachel, Rachel
4:00AM The Outrage

Alexander Coleman said...

Tony, I was sure TCM would do this eventually, and I kept looking and looking for this, and just now I come here and you have it for all of us. Thank you!

Alexander Coleman said...

TCM's 24-hour memorial tribute to Newman was a fantastic bit of continual programming to check in on periodically yesterday, which I did primarily to watch Robert Osborne's comments at the beginning and conclusion of the films played.

And, now, thanks to TCM, I finally have this picture on DVD. Yay.

laura said...

I love Paul Newman and I'm still getting over his death. Reading this was downright therapeutic. Thank you, Mr. Coleman.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Laura. Not sure how I missed your comment until now. Forgive me. Seeing this film a few days after the man's death was indeed a revelatory and therapeutic experience.

tim watts said...

I'll be perfectly honest. Your piece here moved me to tears. I'll always remember the experience of seeing The Verdict opening weekend. Paul Newman was a giant among men. I too must thank you Alexander for showing me so much that is to be found in Cool Hand Luke. Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you so very much for the warm, kind and humbling comment, Tim. There is nothing I can say but thank you.

Buzz said...

Excellent commentary. I read the novel upon which Cool Hand Luke was based; the dialogue was very near verbatim. It is surprising to note that the famous "failure t' communicate" line did not appear in the book; I think it must have been improvised or simply added. One of my top ten US movies. Incidentally: the entire movie is serialized, in 13 parts, on YouTube.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Buzz. Thank you, also, for that information about the famed line of dialogue, as well as letting everyone know that they can find this film in thirteen parts on YouTube.

I'm still glad I have my pristine DVD copy from TCM, however!