COOL HAND LUKE (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967)

“For with God, nothing shall be impossible.” — Luke 1:37

Bad movies lean heavily on story and characters, reducing cinema to the level of series television. Brooklyn-born Stuart Rosenberg began in television, but he brings to Cool Hand Luke, his best film, atmosphere and (given its subject matter) considerable restraint. Written by ex-con Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson from the former’s novel, it homes in on members of a chain gang housed at a southern prison camp.
     Lucas Jackson is a new arrival. (In the opening scene, in the dead of night, he is drunkenly beheading parking meters with a pipe cutter.) This is one who is not going to knuckle under and respect authority. This one’s got “attitude.” He will try to escape; shot dead, he will assume a legendary status.
     The closing shot superimposes Jackson’s smiling face on the juncture of crossroads, bringing to fruition one of the film’s lamest aspects: its ostentatious, rhetorical Christ-imagery. This is in full visual force in an earlier betting contest among the men; Jackson succeeds in eating fifty eggs in one hour. After that ordeal, an angled overhead shot shows Jackson, unconscious, lying on a table, his arms outstretched. (An earlier group portrait, in long-shot, vaguely suggests Leonardo’s The Last Supper.) Jackson’s nickname, Cool Hand Luke, derives from this Christlike remark: “Sometimes nothing is a cool hand to play.” Jackson’s prisoner number is 37. (On both points, see biblical quotation above.)
     What helps us through all this Jesus-nonsense is the good acting of Paul Newman as Cool Hand Luke. Newman’s most moving scene comes when Jackson, having learned his mother has died, quietly sings in tribute. George Kennedy’s Oscar-winning turn as Dragline, Jackson’s disciple, is dreadful; Conrad Hall’s color cinematography, pointlessly pretty; Lalo Schifrin’s music, indefatigably intrusive.

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