Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Wow. Let me start by saying, there is a reason why Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a classic. Lots of reasons, actually. Another Paul Newman anti-hero role, another film so perfectly indicative of the time in which it was made.
I am telling you, you’ve got to watch this one! Cool Hand Luke is available on Amazon. But it is also currently on Netflix! (At least where I live.) So if you missed this masterpiece last week on TCM, you basically have no excuse not to make watching it a part of your weekend plans!!
The story takes place in Florida, circa 1950. We meet our anti-hero, Luke Jackson (Newman), right away: he is drunkenly cutting the heads off parking meters in a small town we can infer doesn’t have much going on.
And can I just take a moment to comment on Newman’s attire in this scene? Socks with loafers is legitimately AWESOME. At least when Paul Newman does it! Also, note the beer bottle opener that Luke wears in this scene and throughout the film. Another instance of real-life Paul Newman style working its way into one of his onscreen characters.
Luke Goes to Prison. And Meets the Captain.
Anyway, Luke soon gets caught by the police. Now, you’d think for such a minor offense, Luke would perhaps spend a night in jail until he sobered up, maybe have a bunch of community service assigned, or something along those lines? NOPE. He gets two years in prison. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime. When Luke arrives at the prison, which seems to be in a Southern middle-of-no-where, we, as does the Captain of the prison (Strother Martin), know right away that Luke is different. And will probably be trouble.
Luke soon meets the other inmates and learns all the prison rules. The take away from the prison rules: basically, if you do anything at all, the Captain and his henchmen can arbitrarily decide to make you spend a night (or several) in “the box,” which is just what it sounds like, a small box structure barely big enough for a man to stand in, where inmates are sent to spend time in solitary. We’re hoping our guy won’t ever have to spend time in the box…but we also kind of know he will.
The other inmates initially don’t like Luke. Mostly because he is the new guy. But also because Luke stands out—he says smart-alec things to the prison floorwalkers, and sticks up for new inmates when they get hazed by Dragline (George Kennedy), the alpha inmate. Luke stands by his sense of justice and (moral?) convictions, even when the smart thing to do is to just be quiet, or let something slide. Like Neman himself, Luke is a tenacious character.
The inmates’ view of Luke begins to change after Dragline, a huge, bear of a man, challenges Luke to a fight, and Luke, half his size, accepts. It is a touching scene (I actually cried!), watching Luke constantly getting knocked to the ground by this giant man. But somehow Luke always finds the strength to get back up and keeping fighting.
Again, it is probably in Luke’s best interest to just stay on the ground. The other inmates, and even Dragline himself, plea with Luke to just stop trying, but he won’t. He can’t.
“Stay down, you’re beat!”
Says Dragline. But Luke responds,
“You’re gonna have to kill me.”
A Real Cool Hand
Eventually, Dragline walks away from the fight, leaving Luke the last man standing. Luke has won both the fight and the respect and admiration of the other inmates.
After the triumphant fight, Luke wins an inmate poker game with a truly terrible hand. This cements Luke’s nickname, which Dragline, who has become a bit of a fanboy, coins:
“Nothin’. A handful of nothin’. He [Luke] beat you with nothin’. Just like today when he kept comin’ back at me, with nothin’.
Luke famously responds:
“Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
The Turning Point
So Cool Hand Luke has gained the respect of the inmates, and even some of the prison floorwalkers. (The egg eating scene!!!!) But after Luke gets word that his mother has died, and the Captain decides to give Luke some time in the box—just in case he is tempted to run away for her funeral—we can sense that Luke’s unbreakable spirit and rebellious streak are about to be put to some self-destructive uses. Captain shouldn’t have put him in the box.
Luke Attempts to Break Free
The rest of the film centers around Luke’s multiple attempts to escape prison. He escapes a total of three times, each time unsuccessfully. When caught after his second attempt, Luke is told that if he tries to escape again, he will be killed. Enter the infamous line,
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,”
said by the Captain before he dishes out Luke’s punishment.
By Luke’s second failed prison escape, you are kind of hoping that he will just call it quits, serve his two years without resistance, and be done with it. But you also admire Luke’s incapacity to accept that path. (ANTI-HERO, remember??!)
One Last Try
Luke’s spirit is temporarily broken after his second escape. But…once out on the chain gang again, Luke has an opportunity to steal a truck and make a getaway, and he takes it. This time Dragline joins him, and after they have escaped a fair distance, Luke says they should separate. Dragline reluctantly agrees—he doesn’t really know what to do without Luke—and Dragline is soon caught.
Luke, still free, finds himself inside a church and touchingly tries talking with God:
Anybody here? Hey, Ol’ Man, You home tonight?…about time we had a little talk…I know I got no call to ask for much, but even so, You’ve gotta admit, You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginnin’ to look like You got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of ’em rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell Ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end? What do Ya got in mind for me? What do I do now? I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. I guess I gotta find my own way.
Before you know it, the church is surrounded. The Captain and his henchmen are outside. They send in Dragline to try to convince Luke that if he comes out without a fight, they won’t kill him. Liars.
Triumph in Death
Luke ends up shot in the neck, and then the Captain tells the driver to take Luke the long way to the prison hospital, ensuring that Luke won’t survive the drive.
Luke’s death seems a tragic victory to us somehow: maybe because he is smiling as he dies, maybe because he died staying true to himself, never giving up on his beliefs or taking the easy path. We also see that his life and death inspire the other inmates, particularly Dragline, to be their own men, to think for themselves and to stand for something. As Dragline tells the other inmates at the film’s close,
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 a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.
A world shaker indeed. And with that, the film ends.
From Book to Screenplay
Cool Hand Luke was first a novel, written by Donn Pearce. The book was based on Pearce’s own life and experiences, and Pearce had led quite a life! He was a merchant seaman before becoming a counterfeiter and safecracker, and Cool Hand Luke was all about Pearce’s time working on a chain gang during his own imprisonment. This guy was a character with some interesting stories to tell.
Pearce was hired by Jalem Productions (Jack Lemmon’s company) to write the screenplay, which Jalem planned to make into a film, with guess who playing the title role. YES. Yet another classic Paul Newman role was initially a project slated for Jack Lemmon! But Lemmon knew the role was not right for him, and so while the screenplay was being fleshed out, Jalem Productions looked for the perfect actor to play Cool Hand Luke Jackson.
Newman Takes the Role
They didn’t have to look long. Paul Newman had read the book, and was immediately interested in playing “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson. And he agreed to the role without even seeing a finished script! As Newman recounted,
“It’s one of the few roles I committed myself to on the basis of the original book, without seeing a script. It would have worked no matter how many mistakes were made.”
And boy, does this film work! The casting of Newman was absolute perfection to just about everyone, the one notable exception being Donn Pearce. Pearce thought Newman was completely wrong for the role. As recently as 2011, Pearce said
“They did a lousy job and I disliked it intensely. [Newman] was so cute looking. He was too scrawny. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.”
Well, the public and the Academy disagreed: Cool Hand Luke went on to gross over $16 million in the US, and garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, in a year of stiff competition. (Newman was up against Spencer Tracy, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Rod Steiger that year. It was Tracy who ended up winning the Oscar, posthumously, for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.)
Interesting side note: Pearce had been a consultant on the Cool Hand Luke set, and, after punching a guy on the last day of filming, was uninvited to the film premiere. So…do you think maybe his negativity towards the film is a little biased?!!
No, Newman Did Not Really Eat 50 Eggs
The famous egg scene, in which Luke bets another inmate that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour, was one instance in which Paul Newman did not go the Method acting route of experiencing what you are acting. Newman insisted in an interview that for the filming of that scene,
“I never swallowed an egg.”
The reporter conducting the interview then teased him with the question,
“Isn’t Method acting about doing the real thing?”
To which Newman responded,
“Not if you have to swallow eggs.”
Well said, well said.
In fact, George Kennedy, who played Dragline in the film (and won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year for the role), remembered that Newman consumed about eight eggs during the filming of that scene. And as soon as director Stuart Rosenberg yelled “cut,” Newman immediately sought out a nearby garbage can to vomit in. Can you blame him? (I would have done the same thing…!)
Newman Did His Own Banjo Playing
After Luke learns of his mother’s death, he mourns by singing “Plastic Jesus” while playing the banjo. (Watch the video below!!!) It’s a great scene, incredibly touching, and Newman knew it would be more effective if he were actually playing the banjo in it. The problem was, as George Kennedy humorously put it,
“Paul knew as much about the banjo as I do about baking cakes.”
After a few arguments, Newman convinced director Rosenberg to film the scene towards the end of the shooting schedule so he would have as much time as possible to learn the banjo. (And it was Harry Dean Stanton, who played fellow innmate “Tramp” in the film, who taught him!)
When the day of filming the scene finally came, in Kennedy’s words,
“…in the scene you see, Paul makes an error. He wasn’t doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder, although you can only tell by the increase of the pace of his stroking the banjo. When it was over, it was magnificent. Rosenberg said, ‘Print.’ Paul said, ‘I could do it better.’ And Rosenberg said, ‘Nobody could do it better.’”
Indeed, Rosenberg’s patience and Newman’s hard work paid off: this is a scene that sticks with you, it’s authentic and true, no doubt in large part because it was, banjo playing and all, completely Paul Newman’s performance.
Well, thanks for sticking with me! (I wish I had time to go into all of the cool biblical parallels and imagery in the film, but I’ll save that for another post.) Cool Hand Luke is a special film that deserves a detailed tribute, especially because—I am sad to say—it is my last post on May Star of the Month, Paul Newman.
I am sure I will find excuses to write more about him very soon, because this month I have become a full fledged fan of both Paul Newman the actor, and Paul Newman the man.
But, as much as I would love for the month to not end, I am also super excited to usher in our June Star of the Month, the adorable Ms. Jane Powell!
Stay tuned! Next week I will introduce this talented little lady with some fun facts about her life and career!
And in closing, have any of you seen Cool Hand Luke? What do you think of it? Does it deserve its stellar reputation? (Obviously, I think so!)