• In the long and distinguished career of Paul Newman, Cool Hand Luke sits at the top of the heap as the great actor’s single best work.
  • In 1967 Newman was 42-years old, at the height of his powers, and no longer getting mistaken for Marlon Brando. He was looking to challenge himself in a way he had not previously.
  • Veteran television director Stuart Rosenberg is at the helm here and most of his decisions here are perfect, if not artistically inspired. It is fair to question though if at least some of these ideas came from director of cinematography Conrad Hall (who also famously shot In Cold Blood in 1967) as the varying resumes (Hall’s is great, Rosenberg’s is not) before and after would lead you to believe Hall is the genius. Either way, one such inspiration is the freeze frame near the opening on a grinning Newman (playing the lead- Lucas Jackson of course).
  • This is also probably the best work from Lalo Schifrin whose musical resume also includes Bullitt and Dirty Harry. A portion of this was lifted for years for the Eyewitness News theme.
  • This is 1967 and Vietnam is in the backdrop as Cool Hand Luke’s backstory is he was a war hero who went into the army as a private, got promoted to Sargent, and came out of the army as a private. This piece of character background tells you everything you need to know about what’s going to happen to Jackson as he enters the chain gang prison. He is in for destroying municipal property—I tried to compare this to the revolution of Fight Club and destroying the credit card companies and debt- but I think that is a stretch.
  • This is a prison filed with rules, rules, and more rules— “We got rules here” says George Kennedy’s (he is amazing here) Dragline character. And Dragline’s dialogue is after Strother Martin’s Captain touts the rules, and another boss spouts a bunch of them between. Cool Hand Luke is eight years before the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) film (these two films are incredibly similar- and both magnificent) but the source material for Cuckoo’s Nest was out before both the Cool Hand Luke film and book. Jackson just smirks at the rules as only Newman can.

at least a half dozen times Conrad Hall bounces the camera off Morgan Woodward’s sunglasses– beautiful

  • The serious story of Jackson’s trials and tribulations in prison are intercut with these great little comic vignettes like men watching Joy Harmon wash a car, the tarring race (the cast actually tarred a one-mile strip in making the movie) and the eating eggs contest (just so much fun). It is 50 eggs for the 50 prisoners. The grasp of the subtext here (and this is one of the great Christ allegories along with E.T.) is essential to getting the full reading of the film but it is not necessary to enjoy your time watching.
  • Hall’s photography captures the oppressive heat (shot partially in Florida) of the southeast US. The men working on the gang are beaten down everything- including Hall’s Ad Astra-like sun spots on the lens.

At the 35-minute mark there are two beer bottles and nine men in the frame as the prisoners play poker—this is a great composition- worthy of Visconti’s La Terra Trema or Kurosawa’s multiplying heads in a frame from Seven Samurai or Sanjuro– I wish there were more like this here

Newman’s Jackson is laid out like Christ on the cross at the 65-minute mark, a scene later he yells to the heavens questioning whether God is listening (he has a mother- played by Jo Van Fleet- but an absent father he never met). He plays the song “Plastic Jesus” after his mother passes and Newman sheds a tear. Luke is prisoner number 37- “For with God nothing shall be impossible” from Luke in the Bible.

At the 85-minute mark just after the famous “What we have here…is a failure to communicate” line from Strother Martin is a Rossellini/Stromboli-like frame with Newman’s Luke laying down in the background with Martin and two guards elevated in the far background behind him. This use of blocking and elevation is masterful (Polanski tries something similar in Knife in the Water and Leone does as well in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly).

  • At the 109-minute mark there is a low-angle shot from Luke’s POV looking at Martin’s Captain character through the chain link fence. There are two circular light fixtures above Martin’s head- this is an impressive composition.
  • Like Jesus, his followers turn their back or deny Jackson towards the end (and his end)—and Dragline, his closest ally, transforms to a Judas-like character leading the guards to capture Jackson at a church of all places.
  • In the final frame, the camera elevates to show the cross—two roads in the rural south though Rosenberg should have let off the dissolve of the photo of Cool Hand Luke to pair with it.
  • A masterpiece