“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
This actually turns out not to be the case in Cool Hand Luke, the second show of our Paul Newman double-feature. Or not exactly, I guess. I’d say the real issue is less of communication and more of reality. I will elaborate on this shortly, but first: CLH is a Stuart Rosenberg joint, far-and-away his best film (among such films as The Amityville Horror (1979), Brubaker, The Pope of Greenwich Village and so on), and it’s also a relatively early example of the whole “Easy Rider/Raging Bull” era which I generally find so loathsome.
The premise is that, on a drunk, Luke (a war hero) goes into town and chops all the heads off the parking meter. He’s not stealing the money, he’s just vandalizing (as we later learn, some kind of imagined payback to…the system?). Nonetheless, he ends up in a prison with a bunch of other sweaty ne’er-do-wells who earn their keep by doing roadwork. He’s not popular at first, especially with the lumbering loudmouth Dragline (George Kennedy, bein’ awesome), but he wins over the much bigger man by losing to him in an epic fistfight, sorta. You see, Luke doesn’t know when to quit. He makes up his mind and he sticks to it. It’s his one principle, from what I could see.
Dragline knocks him down and Luke gets up, so Dragline knocks him down again, and Luke gets up again. He doesn’t know which way is up by this point, but he keeps getting up and you start to feel sorry for Dragline, having to keep knock him down like that. (Speaking of “Raging Bull”s!)
Later, in a poker game, Luke wins with nothing, again on the principle that he just doesn’t know when to quit but most people do blink if you stare ’em down long enough.
Things actually go pretty well after that, right up until the death Luke’s mother (Jo Van Fleet, Oscar-winner for East of Eden, but mostly a TV gal). The Warden, Captain (Strother Martin, another huge TV guy) tells him that he’s going in The Hole (or The Shack or whatever it is) because when a man loses his mother, he gets it in his head that he should be there at his funeral, and so—purely precautionary—he’s gonna have to go in The Hole.
And that ain’t right. You don’t put someone in The Hole before they’ve had a chance to deserve it. That’s the breakdown in reality between Luke and The System. One sort of suspects it’s the same kind of breakdown that occurred between Luke and The System right before he decapitated the parking meters. Things go downhill from here, though he’s become a kind of hero to the boys in his cell block, so they don’t see it.
But, generally, when there’s a breakdown between any given individual and The System, it’s the individual who suffers.
I had, not too long ago, seen this on TV (before the current rash of revivals) and I wasn’t crazy about it, but The Big Screen makes a Big Difference as always, and I liked it much more here than before, even though it suffers from some of the nihilism that plagued the era. The thing about Luke is that he’s likable, even admirable in a way. He’s operating (as Butch Cassidy would in a few years) on a different level than the rest of the bifocal-wearing world. For instance:
The boys do road work, and it’s nasty, hot and they’re surrounded by hostile men with guns, including a sunglasses wearing demon whom the Coen brothers had to be referencing in O Brother, Where Art Thou. So, they work slow, and they do a poor job. But Luke gets the idea to make a game out of it, and they race—while making careful work of it—to get the road done, and get it done in a fraction of time. The guards are alarmed, and the inmates are delighted, once they catch on.
It’s kind of a powerful statement, that: How we fit into these grooves and act like we have no more volition, because of a particular element of our circumstances. And Luke is a kind of a guy who just doesn’t fit into those grooves, and it doesn’t take much to set him off out of them. This is a particularly common theme of the era, and it works here (for me) unlike most other themes. Even here, you have the problem of, “Well, okay, then what?”
Newman does so well here because it is, in a way, him. He didn’t seem to fit into the grooves much.
A heart-breaking rendition of “Plastic Jesus” by Newman who might actually have been plucking on the banjo while singing it. Most of the songs is provided by the late Harry Dean Stanton as Tramp but the great Lalo Schifrin provides the score. (Schifrin was to that era what John Williams would become in the ’70s, Danny Elfman in the ’80s.) Small part for “M*A*S*H”‘s Wayne Rogers and and an even smaller part for Dennis Hopper. Joy Harmon washes a car.
The kids liked it, but once again, it was not clear whether they preferred this (the obviously more iconic film) or Sweet Bird of Youth. The Flower found herself charmed by “Plastic Jesus” and is learning to play it on the guitar.