Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 11/6/08 w/ Additional Edits.
Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke tells the story of a prisoner who defies authority in a harsh Florida prison. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg with a script written by Pearce and Frank Pierson, the film features Paul Newman in the title role as Luke Jackson. A man who just won't conform to whatever the system tells him to do as he proves to be an inspiration to the fellow prisoners around him. Also starring George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Luke Askew, Dennis Hopper, Clifton James, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, and Morgan Woodward. Cool Hand Luke is a tremendous film from Stuart Rosenberg.
After doing some drinking and destroying some parking meters, Lucas Jackson is sent to a prison in Florida. Under the supervision of its captain (Strother Martin), Jackson along with three other new convicts including Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton) are given rules to live in the prison. Joining several other men including Dragline (George Kennedy), the men plow the fields, create ditches, and pave roadways. Yet, Lucas has managed to prove to be a guy not willing to give in to the system. After a fight with Dragline where he refused to stay down, he gains the respect of his fellow inmates as well as a few men running the prison. After meeting his mother (Jo Van Fleet) when she visits, he's given a banjo as he continues to be an inspiration.
Dragline befriends the young new convict whom he named Cool Hand Luke as Luke proves to be a real tough guy by eating 50 eggs in an hour. After causing some intimidation in the sunglasses-wearing Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), Luke proves to be powerful until he receives news over the death of his mother. Yet, Luke decides to try and break out of prison with the help of a few prisoners. After two attempts where he nearly succeeded, notably the second one. He is sent back as the captain tries to break his spirit. With the prison bosses making him dig a big ditch and prisoners looking on. The captain wonders if he has broken Luke's spirit but Luke has other ideas with Dragline in tow.
The film can be described as inspirational due to the idea that Luke is described as a Christ-like figure. A man who brings so much inspiration and hope to his fellow prisoners while proving that he can't give in to authority. Attempts to break the spirit of someone like Luke is hard, even when his mother dies and the time he gets captured again and abused. Even at the lowest point, it seems like Luke is willing to give up but this a man that can't really be broken. Even to someone as tough and hardened like Dragline who becomes his confidant and at times, a father figure. Dragline teaches Luke about surviving the prison and its confines while gaining hope in that he too, can escape and yearn for freedom. The script by its novelist Donn Pearce and co-writer Frank Pierson is filled with moments of humor as well as drama and action as it keeps on getting interesting right to the end.
Stuart Rosenberg's direction is truly superb in its compositions and presentation of key scenes. From the way the film opened to its last sequence, it's done with great style that is reminiscent of what American films were doing at that time against the traditional style of the past. There's scenes where Rosenberg captures a great moment of action with his fluid camera and scenery while one sequence in which Luke is beaten, reveals the perspective of all of the prisoners in a rich composition. Yet, Rosenberg's approach to the drama is all in a theatrical style with intimate settings to reveal the kind of tension and comradery between the prisoners and a few of its guards. The film's thematic tone about authority and conformity reveal something power around the time of the mid & late 1960s. The result is a powerful film about individuality and the refusal to conform from the mind of Stuart Rosenberg.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall bring exquisite camera work to many of the film's exterior sequences, notably the skylines and shots of the roads filled with great blue skies and beautiful shots of the river. Hall's interior work, notably the prison house is filled with wonderful lighting setups to create a unique sense of intimacy and atmosphere for those scenes. Even the exterior nighttime scenes are done with wonderful shades and tone to bring for those scenes. Hall's work is truly brilliant in exemplifying in why he's one of American cinema's most renowned cinematographers. Editor Sam O'Steen does great work in creating a fluid style of editing that's traditional but with jump-cuts and rhythmic cutting to emphasize a new style of editing that was cutting edge at the time. Yet, the editing works to capture the moment of action and drama with such precision and in the creation of smooth transitions from scene to scene.
Art director Cary Odell and set decorator Fred Price do excellent work in the look of the rural prison and the house for its convicts as it's given a real, Southern look and style for its intimate setting. Costume designer Howard Shoup also does excellent work in the look of the convicts uniform along with the prison guard suits to show the contrast between authority and those forced to give in. Sound recordist Larry Jost does excellent work in the sound of rain, chains, rakes, and other things to create something intimate and real. Music composer Lalo Schifrin creates a unique film score that is a mix of traditional, orchestral pieces for some of the film's dramatic moments and a Southern, string-inspired piece with guitars and banjos for some of the film's comical and light-hearted moments. Even music from Harry Dean Stanton who sings in a few tracks is filled with Southern values that plays true to the tone of the film.
The cast is truly superb with early appearances from actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Anthony Zerbe, and James Gammon as fellow convicts where they each have memorable moments. Other memorable character actors like Clifton James and Joe Don Baker are great as the two men who run the prison house with Lou Antonio in a memorable role as the convict Koko. Joy Harmon has a memorable appearance as the girl washing her car bringing a lot of excitement to the convicts while Jo Van Fleet is great as Luke's mother who knew that he was trouble but always brought some excitement into her life. Luke Askew is excellent as one of the prison bosses while Morgan Woodward has a more memorable appearance as Boss Godfrey, a man who doesn't talk and wears sunglasses but is a good shooter. Strother Martin is brilliant as the Captain, the prison's warden who has a great complexity in being someone who might be helpful or he can be a mean son-of-a-bitch. It's a brilliant performance with a great Southern drawl that proves he can be intimidating while carrying a unique charm.
George Kennedy, in his Oscar-winning performance as Dragline is brilliant as the prison's convict leader who provides wisdom in showing how to live in the prison while being impressed by Luke's spirit. Kennedy's performance filled with humor and a father-like persona is truly amazing as it's a very memorable performance as a man who finds a new lease on life while trying to keep everything cool that goes with the prisoners. Finally, there's Paul Newman in an iconic role as the title character of Cool Hand Luke. An anti-hero who isn't a real hero but one that won't back down from authority or anything is a guy that is inspirational and can bring a unique spirit. Newman also proves that for a guy that's very beautiful, he can also be tough as hell where he won't be backed down. Filled with a lot of charisma, vulnerability, and tenacity as he's just a guy trying to figure out his role in the world and why he's being pushed down. It's a phenomenal performance from the legendary actor.
Cool Hand Luke is a magnificent film from Stuart Rosenberg that features powerful performances from Paul Newman and George Kennedy. This film isn't just one of the finest films in American cinema ever made but also a film that dares to question the idea of authority. Especially in a character like Luke that can only be played with such power by Newman. In the end, Cool Hand Luke is an outstanding film from Stuart Rosenberg.
© thevoid99 2014