Thursday 11 November 2010

Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

A study of confinement, Cool Hand Luke examines the impact of one free spirit on his suffocating environment. A charismatic star, clever directing, outstanding cinematography, and haunting music create exhilaration.

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 shotgun 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 when pummeled in a fight; nonchalantly wins a poker game with a useless hand; accepts a spur-of-the-moment bet to eat 50 eggs in one hour; and leads the men to finish a paving job quicker than anyone expected. When he receives news his mother has died and the prison guards start to abuse him with solitary confinement, Luke becomes obsessed with escaping.
A soulful exploration of a yearning for individuality within oppression, Cool Hand Luke is a textured drama. In his major film debut, director Stuart Rosenberg paces events and allows time for the characters and events to unfold. As one man makes a difference to the collective, Rosenberg contrasts the open spaces on the highways of Florida with the prisoners' quarters, with the irony that the men have more freedom when left alone in their cramped quarters. Cinematographer Conrad Hall creates a scorching and unrelenting yellowish orange aesthetic, outdoors from the unforgiving sun and indoors from the men's mostly topless bronzed bodies.

In a dominating and unforgettable star performance, Paul Newman conveys emotion with sly smiles and an economy of words, creating a throbbing heart in the midst of a prison system overcome by sweaty despair. 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 includes Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Don Baker struggling against weeds and boredom.

Writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson summarize the sparsity of options in the clash between the incarcerated and their guards. Strother Martin, as the prison's captain, distills reality into 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."

Lalo Schifrin's music score is a mixture of playful, downbeat, menacing, and emotional, all hinting at sadness and a sense of doomed destiny. Cool Hand Luke is a challenge to the system, victory measured in brief moments of symbolic triumph.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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