by Tony Dayoub
Stuart Rosenberg's Cool Hand Luke (1967) is out this week in a beautiful deluxe edition. It is an amazing film worth revisiting, and for me, an overlooked classic I've only now had the opportunity to watch. Though the spotlight is on Paul Newman, in what is possibly his most iconic lead role (in a career filled with other roles of arguably equal stature), the big surprise for me is its supporting cast.
There are the three standouts. One is, of course, George Kennedy as Dragline, the oafish leader of the motley Florida chain gang. Winning a deserved Academy Award for this role, it saddens me that he became better known for his continuing appearances in both the Airport and Naked Gun franchises. Dragline is the camp's teller of tall tales, spreading the myth of Luke's rebellious nature with little regard for the man's relatively frail humanity. Then there's the prison's Captain, played by Strother Martin (The Wild Bunch). With one line, "What we've got here is... failure to communicate," Martin became the answer to a movie trivia question. But with little screen time, he is still able to make his insidious presence felt throughout the film. Morgan Woodward (Dallas), is the third, playing the evil guard Boss Godfrey, known to the chain gang as "The Man with No Eyes" for his propensity to hide behind mirrored sunglasses. Godfrey speaks only one or two lines in the entire film, even shooting his rifle more often than that. But Woodward grimly hovers over the gang like a vulture, ready to swoop in at the first sign of weakness.
The film's charm, though, rests squarely on the shoulders of Paul Newman at his most roguish. His Luke is not out to topple the status quo like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Luke simply carries a death wish ever since his return from the war, where he was an ill-suited hero who, despite winning numerous citations, never made it past buck private for his insubordination. Newman lets us see the frail ego behind the bluster in a scene where he has a final visit from his mother (Jo Van Fleet) before her death. His determination to escape, prompted by his captors' decision to keep him "in the box" during his mother's funeral (so he won't get any ideas), is motivated primarily by his self-destructive streak. While inspiring to his fellow prisoners, it is really a continuation of the downward spiral that landed him in prison in the first place. But he sure looks like a handsome devil while he goes down in flames.
Luke encourages his friends to overcome their oppressors by example. Whether its serving as the sacrificial lamb in a wager concerning whether he can eat 50 eggs in 1 hour, or hurriedly tarring a road so that the chain gang will have two hours of free time in the day left over to relax, Luke inspires the inmates to consider optimism as their biggest weapon against the jailers.
Run down the cast list and you'll find others who would go on to fame in TV or cinema. There's Luke Askew (Easy Rider) as Boss Paul, Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall) as Dynamite, J.D. Cannon (McCloud) as Society Red, Clifton James (Live and Let Die) as Carr, Wayne Rogers (TV's M*A*S*H) as Gambler, Ralph Waite (The Waltons) as Alibi, and Anthony Zerbe (The Matrix Reloaded, The Omega Man) as Dog Boy. Better known to the public are two future stars, Dennis Hopper (Blue Velvet, Easy Rider) as the mentally disabled Babalugats, and Harry Dean Stanton (Big Love, Alien), here credited as Dean Stanton, as Tramp. Director Rosenberg smartly filled out the cast with strong character actors, allowing each to make his role distinct in a relatively short amount of time onscreen.
Owing to the relationship they developed in this film, Newman and Rosenberg would go on to collaborate in three more films before Rosenberg would receive renewed acclaim for films like The Amityville Horror (1979) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). Stuart Rosenberg died last year at the age of 79.
Cool Hand Luke is now available in a Deluxe Edition on standard DVD and Blu-ray.
Still provided courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment.