Friday, March 29, 2013

On COOL HAND LUKE (1967)

A friend asked me to name my favorite Easter movie.  OK, I had to admit that renting Easter Parade is an annual tradition for me.  How could it not be?  My favorite two Hollywood entertainers, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, in a classic MGM musical comedy.  Plus Ann Miller.  Please.  What's not to love about that movie on Easter weekend?  I do have another favorite.  Not a musical.  Far from it.  I'm surprised it doesn't get Easter weekend showings on television because it's rich with Christian symbolism.  There's also a memorable scene with that top Easter basket treat we love to color for the kids.  Here's a line from the movie's Oscar-nominated screenplay:

"I can eat 50 eggs."


You guessed it.  The 1967 movie is Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.  This movie was a big hit with critics and moviegoers.  It was the kind of movie that you went to see more than once and you told your friends about it.  I was in high school.  I went to see it more than once and I told my friends about it when I got to school.  Being a veteran of parochial schools, the Christian-like symbolism in its story, visuals and scene blocking were not lost on me.  Luke is sentenced to a Florida prison camp.  Being a member of a chain gang seems a pretty harsh fate for a guy whose crime was being drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters.  This is the way a decorated war veteran is treated.  His war history is important.  That means the non-conformist fought for right and freedom.  Now he's in a physical and spiritual bondage, abused by prison bosses.


Nothing these modern-day Roman conquerers do can hold Luke down or beat his spirit.  Their negativity cannot dominate and intimidate him.  Strother Martin, after years of work, strode into the Hollywood movie history books as the brutal prison camp captain.  When he has to punish Luke yet again, Captain says about him:

"What we got here is failure to communicate."


That became one of most famous movie lines spoken that decade.  It's still famous.  As for Strother Martin, he appeared briefly in another Warner Brothers classic with a famous line of movie dialogue.  Martin has about three short lines as a delivery man in George Cukors's  A Star Is Born.  He drives up with a package for movie star Vicki Lester after she sings "Someone at Last" at home for out-of-work husband, Norman Maine.  The delivery man calls Norman as "Mr. Lester" in the 1954 remake starring Judy Garland and James Mason.

The first inmate to realize Luke's unbeatable spirit is Dragline, played by George Kennedy.  At first, he's an opponent.  He will become Luke's first apostle, of sorts.  He'll follow Luke's example.  He'll be inspired by Luke's spirit.

Big, brawny Kennedy took home a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this performance.  He was another one who'd been paying his dues and honing his craft since the 1950s.  He did a lot of TV work. He grew from bit parts to supporting roles in films such as Lonely Are The Brave starring Kirk Douglas, The Man from the Diners' Club with Danny Kaye, Straight-Jacket with Joan Crawford, Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte starring Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland and Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.  As Dragline in this 1967 film, he's the character his gives Luke his nickname after a card game.  Luke says, "...sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand."  After the card game comes the egg-eating event.  This all adds to what will be Luke's legend.

This tests even the belief of Dragline.  He never saw anybody eat 50 eggs.  But he sticks by Luke and helps him prepare for the challenge.

Eventually, other prisoners join Dragline in being inspired by Luke's spirit.  There's a rejuvenation.  Prison masters will be shaken by this.  Especially the one with the gun who wear the sunglasses.  Luke gains more apostles in the prison camp who follow his lead.

In one shot, as three men take hard-boiled eggs to him, they're framed like the Three Kings taking gifts to the newborn Savior.  In other shot, a prison camp meal visually echoes Christian depictions of The Last Supper with Jesus and His Apostles.

Luke is like a prison camp Messiah.


His non-conformist spirit cannot be contained or extinguished.  Not even when it seems like he's digging his own grave.


 I love the visual literature of Cool Hand Luke.  The cinematography was by Conrad Hall.  At the end of the funny and memorable egg-eating sequence, there's another allegorical camera shot that makes this a contemporary Bible story.

As a Catholic kid growing up, I saw the same exact body position on crucifixes at home and in classrooms.  Warner Brothers gained fame in the 1930s for films focusing on news headline issues such as social injustice, crime and prison abuse.  One classic example is the Best Picture of 1932-33 Oscar nominee, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang starring Paul Muni.  He was nominated for Best Actor.  Cool Hand Luke came out during the turbulent 1960s -- the Civil Rights Era, the assassination of President Kennedy, the Vietnam War, race riots and student protests.  And changing attitudes towards organized religion like Catholicism.  Cool Hand Luke was relevant.  Couple that with the fact that the 1960s were golden years for Newman.  He became a global movie star.  There was The Hustler in 1961 and Hud in 1963.  He racked up more Best Actor Academy Award nominations with those performances.  Cool Hand Luke would bring him yet another one.  After this Oscar-winning hit film, he'd have another big box office winner in a couple of years called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Cool Hand Luke just is a Paul Newman film.  He was the perfect actor with the right star power and image for the part.  It's fun to look at his fellow inmates and spot others who went on to other notable work.  Dennis Hopper of Rebel Without a Cause and Giant is on the chain gang.  So is Wayne Rogers years before his TV success as a cast member on M*A*S*H with Alan Alda.  Newcomer Harry Dean Stanton, last seen on HBO's Big Love and doing a cameo in 2012's The Avengers, plays one of the prisoners.


Like a good savior, Luke teaches them how to resist temptations of the flesh.  Another funny and very memorable sequence is the brilliantly edited, comically erotic car wash scene when the convicts are doing some dusty, strenuous road work.  A local gal with a hose, a bucket and a little-bitty dress proceeds to soap up her vehicle.

In full view of the hot, half-dressed and horny chain gang.


Director Stuart Rosenberg gave us one of best bawdy scenes ever in a prison movie.

Luke will come to wonder if he's been forsaken by his Heavenly Father.  He'll feel lost.  There will be death and resurrection of spirits.  Oppression will be weakened.  An ordinary man, Luke entered the prisoners' lives, changed their lives while they were in bondage, and he'll go on to become legend.  A legend called Cool Hand Luke.  Yes, it's a prison movie but its essence works for Easter weekend.  I think you'll see what I mean.

Happy Easter.  And I bet you can't eat 50 eggs.

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