Thursday, 11 November 2010

Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

A study of confinement when injected with a surge of anti-establishment, Cool Hand Luke examines the impact of one free-spirited character on his suffocating environment. A perfect metaphor for the upheavals rocking traditional society in the 1960's, the film resonates today thanks to a terrific cast, clever directing, outstanding cinematography and a haunting music score.

Luke (Paul Newman), a decorated war veteran, is arrested for destroying municipal property: while drunk, he deliberately cuts the heads off parking meters. He is sentenced to two years in a Florida prison camp, where the daily routine involves exhausting labour whacking weeds or paving roads on endless rural highways supervised by shot-gun wielding guards. With his lack of respect for any conventions, Luke quickly agitates Dragline (George Kennedy), the most senior prisoner.

But gradually, Luke earns the respect and then the adulation of all the prisoners with his laid-back but fearless attitude. He does not back-down while pummeled in a fight with Dragline; he non-chalantly wins a poker game with a useless hand; he wins a spur-of-the-moment bet to eat 50 eggs in one hour; and he leads the men to finish a road paving job much quicker than anyone expected, earning them a couple of hours of rest.

When he receives news that his mother has died and the prison guards start to abuse him with solitary confinement, Luke becomes obsessed with escaping. Each time he is caught, the abuse gets worse, his reputation among the prisoners is elevated, and he is spurred to try again, leading to a final conversation with God, and a final confrontation with the guards.

In an example of a star dominating a movie seemingly without even trying, this is one of Paul Newman's defining roles. He conveys emotion and establishes dominance with the sliest of smiles and an economy of words. George Kennedy is the perfect foil, using an excess of physicality and presence to maintain his position as top prison dog. The cast of prisoners is deep with future notables: Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Joe Don Baker are in among the sweaty bodies fighting the weeds and boredom of prison life.

Strother Martin, in charge of the prison as its "captain", gets one of the most famous lines in movie history, courtesy of script writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Martin's nasally delivery underlines a legend of short sentence fragments:

"What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don't like it any more than you men."

In his major film debut, director Stuart Rosenberg paces the film and allows time for the characters and events to unfold. He brilliantly contrasts the open spaces on the highways of Florida against the confined prisoners' quarters, with the irony that the men have more freedom to have fun when left alone in their cramped quarters, as opposed to the ever-present threat of shot-guns over their heads out on the highway.

Working with cinematographer Conrad Hall, Rosenberg paints the movie a gloomy yellowish orange, emanating outdoors from the unforgiving scorching sun and indoors from the men's mostly topless bronzed bodies.

Lalo Schifrin's music score is a mixture of the playful, the downbeat, the menacing and the emotional, all of it hinting at sadness and a sense of doomed destiny.

At once sad, grim, hopeful, funny, and realistic, Cool Hand Luke is a rare example of a star-centred film where all the other elements also shine bright.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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