James Dean may have forever defined the iconic pose of rebel-cool with a disgruntled slouch and a leather jacket, but Paul Newman’s “Cool Hand Luke” musses that ’50s brilliantine with equal smatterings of mud and sweat. As an aimless drifter and chain-gang escapee, Newman’s Luke becomes the very embodiment of antihero as he struggles against the oppression of a rural prison.
It’s a classic story of man versus The Man. From “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” (1932) to “One Flew Over a Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975), the looming threat of institutionalized coercion has prodded many a screenwriter to fight for the little guy. Add a Southern villain, and “Cool Hand Luke” fits perfectly with the turbulence of the ’60s. After all, “Easy Rider” was only two years away.
The role of social outsider wasn’t exactly new to Newman, either. He’d already roamed the pool-hall circuit in “The Hustler” and started fights as a restless ranchhand in “Hud.” But Luke achieves a special sort of senseless doom in sticking so resolutely to his own code. He’s stubborn with his principles, yes, but really still searching for them.
Arrested for destroying some parking meters while on a drunken spree, Luke gets sentenced to two years on a chain gang in the barren, rural South. His welcome to prison is predictably harsh – everyone from the Captain on down to the fellow inmates seems determined to break in his proud bearing of willful defiance. But even mid-fistfight, Luke remains utterly cool. Put him in a poker match or solitary confinement, and he dependably reacts the same way.
Newman in almost any case is a magnetic screen presence, with searing eyes that burn their scorching blue even through black and white. Handsome and quiet, he has that certain air of the wise rascal about him – always thinking about the next step, always confident he can handle it. In modern terms, George Clooney is perhaps our equivalent, although it’s hard to picture him sweating over a shovel on a shadowless dirt road. Newman doesn’t boast the same suave charms of high style or class. He’s a working man, just a wily one.
And the film lets him have a little fun. For all its hard-to-take cruelty and beautifully stark black-and-white imagery (courtesy of famed cinematographer Conrad L. Hall, “American Beauty”), “Cool Hand Luke” certainly lets loose. Take the young beauty who suggestively soaps up her car for a wash in full sight of all the sex-starved prisoners – locker-room talk at its most comically pained. And it’s hard to forget the famous hard-boiled egg-eating bet, when Luke calmly claims he can down 50 in an hour. He’s primed for the event like a pedigree heavyweight; in the fight against monotony, the inmates have finally found their savior.
Such Christ imagery is often associated with the tragedy of the non-conforming Luke, although more essential to the film is the hard-nosed Captain’s immortal observation: “What we have here is . failure to communicate.” He picks his words carefully, but they’re still not accurate. What Luke has is a failure to capitulate, and cinematic history would never want him to do so.