1967's Cool Hand Luke preserves a time when one could not only get away with making an allegory with an existential hero, but stock it with an ensemble from the Actors Studio. Of course, having Paul Newman play the lead is a trump card for this "cool hand." Though he may have been just one of the guys to his Actors Studio compadres, the movie star with the piercing blue eyes and relaxed masculinity has no equal. Newman was well suited to the role of Luke, adapted by screenwriter Frank R. Pierson from the unambiguous criminal of Donn Pearce's novel into a man whose relatively benign crime (lopping the tops off of parking meters) represents his distrust of a corrupt social order.
As a war hero, Luke paid his dues to society, but his homecoming found him uncertain of his place in socieety. Drink, despair, loneliness, and boredom led to his crime and subsequent imprisonment in a rural Southern prison work camp (filmed partly on location in Stockton, CA). There, like Randall McMurphy of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Luke will inevitably fulfill and face up to his nature as an existential hero with a countercultural bent. His fellow inmates on the road gang take heart from this unstoppable object, a man who refuses to stay down when beaten, who refuses to give in despite the cards being stacked against him. In this symbolic landscape, individualism is the greatest crime, and Luke begins to take on the aspect of a serene truth-teller destined for martyrdom (or, in other words, a Christ figure: a symbolism repeatedly reinforced by director Stuart Rosenberg).
Rosenberg's direction is shrewd and restrained, the classic dusty cinematography by Conrad Hall makes brilliant use of light and shadow on location and within Cary Odell's fine prison barracks set, and the score by Lalo Schifrin is one of his best (evidenced by the unfortunate fact that ABC adopted one cut for its Eyewitness News theme, with which the cue remains associated). But Cool Hand Luke runs on its fantastic ensemble work. There's a theatrical quality to the writing here, from the prisoners' communal emotion (reminiscent of, say, Stalag 17) to the rich actor's duet played by Newman and Jo Van Fleet as his visiting, dying mother. Van Fleet, only four years older than Newman, brings powerful sadness to this requiem for family, and Newman beautifully plays the conduit for her emanating emotion.
George Kennedy won an Oscar as the burly Dragline, whose distrust of Luke quickly turns to outsized affection (some have called it homoerotic, with good reason). Among the prisoners are actors who remain unsung (like Lou Antonio), along with familiar faces Ralph Waite, Wayne Rogers, Anthony Zerbe, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, and a silent Dennis Hopper. The keepers make at least as strong an impression, from Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), with his reflective sunglasses, to rule-by-rote Carr (Clifton James) to the simply named "Captain" (Strother Martin), whose power-hungry superiority pulses through the immortal line "What we have here is—failure to communicate."
It's a problem that concerns Luke more in his faith-testing relationship with a higher power, expressed in a climactic skyward address to God. When Dragline says, "Oh, Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothing," the line quietly carries our deepest existential fear, that at our most wayward, our lives amount to a meaninglessness. Of course, Luke's meaning was clear enough to audiences in the turbulence of 1967, and equally clear today: that the power of the individual can not be simply erased when it stands as an example to others. In this vein, the creative lifeblood of Cool Hand Luke shows no failure to communicate.
Warner does right by a long overdue classic catalog title with this debut special edition of Cool Hand Luke on DVD and Blu-Ray. Previous DVD editions lacked significant features, but this one has a brand-new commentary and brand-new documentary to complement a spot-on new high-def transfer. The 41-year old film has been transferred from a nice, clean print and the Blu-Ray edition shows an unprecedented level of detail and clarity compared to previous home video issues. The Dolby Digital mono track isn't going to rock your system, but it does get the job done with clarity and presumably best-case fidelity to the original source material from 1967.
Foremost among the bonus features is the new documentary "A Natural Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke" (28:46). This half an hour covers a lot of ground, and gathers an impressive group of cast and crew from the film. Though some well-known faces are MIA (Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, and Wayne Rogers), participants include director Stuart Rosenberg, Anthony Zerbe, Paul Newman: A Celebration author Eric Lax, screenwriter Frank Pierson, Ralph Waite, Cool Hand Luke novelist Donn Pearce, George Kennedy, Clifton James, Lou Antonio, assistant director Hank Moonjean, Joy Herman ("The Girl"), and composer Lalo Schifrin. All share vivid memories of a heady team marked by a strong camaraderie amongst the ensemble, with anecdotes about how the directors handled the cast, the film's most famous line, the "Lucille" scene, the egg-eating scene, the tar sequence, etc.
There's also a commentary by author Eric Lax. Lax is frequently redundant to the documentary, but he makes a habit of giving a biographical sketch of each of the actors who come up, which is useful He also gives a rundown of the film's Oscars and competition, analysis of themes and key scenes, and discussion of Lalo Schifrin's score. Perhaps most interesting are his comments about the scene between Newman and Jo Van Fleet, famous for playing years older than her actual age.
Lastly, we get the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (2:48). Though under ideal circumstances, we'd hear from Paul Newman or perhaps get a commentary from Stuart Rosenberg, this deluxe edition offers a very nice, film-like transfer that makes the film as good as new, as well as ample context about its making and social meaning.
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