Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cool Hand Luke

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
1967. Not Rated, 126 minutes.
Paul Newman
George Kennedy
Strother Martin
J.D. Cannon
Lou Antonio
Jo Van Fleet
Clifton James
Robert Drivas
Dennis Hopper

Drunk, and possibly bored, Luke (Newman) gets busted for cutting the heads off about a dozen parking meters. He is sentenced to a prison where he has to work on the chain-gang every day. For you young’uns, there was a time when prisoners did much more on the highways and by-ways than picking up the trash. Being convicted of a crime meant physically exhausting work on those roads on a daily basis. Luke enters just such a place.

Luke also has a smug attitude and unwillingness to conform that tends to rub people the wrong way, at first. Upon his arrival, neither the officers nor his fellow inmates care much for him. Soon, his unbreakable spirit wins over the other prisoners and even most of the guards. However, it also earns him some trouble. Eventually, the movie becomes a battle of wills between Luke and his captors.

The man in the lead role facilitates the battle, perfectly. Paul Newman shows once again why he is a Hollywood icon. His trademark smirk shows just enough arrogance for us to be hesitant about liking him. Arrogance soon reveals itself to really be the type of confidence that attracts people. Then, somehow despite his movie star looks, he never feels like a pretty boy. He’s simply magnetic.

As good as Newman is here, George Kennedy is his equal. As Dragline, Kennedy is charismatic, funny and a commanding presence. His rapid-fire, rumbling voice practically scores the film. Indeed, he seems to do a great deal more talking than our hero, Luke. Dragline is the one that seems to come around on Luke, first in spite of the rocky start they get off to. His near constant chatter helps everyone else do the same.

From the outside looking in, we grow to love Luke just like the inmates. Early on, before us or them is really on his side, Luke finds himself in a fistfight with Dragline. Luke is pitifully overmatched. He gets knocked down so often you’d think it was his mission in life. However, it’s what happens between knock-downs that is his real purpose. He gets up. He gets up, over and over again. He keeps getting up even when it doesn’t seem to be in his best interest. It’s just who he is. Who he is endears him to us. We wish we had his courage. That’s why, during the latter parts of the movie, our sentiments echo those of the convicts during that lopsided fight. From our seats we feel helpless, yet we keep begging him. Stay down, Luke. Stay down.

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