Monday Movie: Cool Hand Luke, by David Bax
What sets Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke apart from the many, many other films that position their protagonists as Christ figures is just how thoroughly unsubtle it is about it. Rather than making it groan-worthy, the plain-dealing straightforwardness of Luke’s perfect torment and sacrifice results in a film that is pure allegory. Cool Hand Luke itself is, thus, such a symbol that Edward Norton’s character in 25th Hour merely having the poster on his apartment wall counts as character development.
Released in 1967, Cool Hand Luke may feel like a precursor to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but it’s worth noting that Ken Kesey’s novel predates Donn Pearce’s source material by three years. Still, it wouldn’t be wrong to compare the film to a sort of Southern fried take on Milos Forman, with its tale of a sardonic free spirit in constant combat with an institution whose cruelty–personified by Strother Martin’s reedy-voice Captain–is bolstered by its unfeeling facelessness–represented by the ever-present mirrored sunglasses of Morgan Woodward’s “Walking Boss.” As brutal as Luke’s stay in Florida’s penal system is, the film actually faced accusations at the time of sanitizing prison life; no specific set of reforms are on Cool Hand Luke‘s mind but we should take some time to think about what horrors we visit upon our fellow citizens in the name of justice.
Pearce adapted his own novel with the help of Frank R. Pierson (still bearing the glow of an Oscar nomination for Cat Ballou) and the screenplay is full of simple, macho poetry (“My boy says he can eat 50 eggs, he can eat 50 eggs”). Meanwhile, Conrad Hall’s photography is sweaty and ichorous; you almost feel as if you could plunge your hands into the changing small town streetlights in the unforgettable opening sequence. And at the center of it all is Paul Newman, long and lithe, with blue eyes like the hottest point of a match. Rosenberg, in all honesty, had to do little beside be the shepherd. Hey, that’s another Christ metaphor!