I’m back from my trip to Los Angeles, and my first-ever visit to a film festival – the Turner Classic Movies network has an annual classic film festival there. And while I wasn’t able to get into all the venues (a failing on my part – I didn’t read the fine print before selecting a festival pass), and missed out on a few films as a result, one venue I could visit was the TCM Chinese Theater IMAX (fka “Grauman’s Chinese Theatre“); so the three films I did see were in a venue that looked like this.
One of those films was Cool Hand Luke. I remarked on that when collecting my festival pass, and the staff at TCM made sure I got some festival swag to commemorate – a little ribbon that quoted Paul Newman’s line about eating fifty eggs. I’d also mentioned to my father that I would be seeing it in the festival; he was shocked this would be my first viewing.
…Ironically, I think my father’s raving about it and the festival’s focus on it built it up more than it should have done for me; and if everyone had left me alone I may have been a bit more impressed.
Not that I didn’t like it, mind you. Paul Newman was excellent as “Lucas Jackson”, a World War II vet we first meet drunkenly chopping down parking meters in small-town 1950s Florida. For this offense he is sentenced to a two-year stay in a Florida prison camp, doing road work as part of a prison gang under the watchful eye of the prison Captain (Strother Martin) and a warden with a penchant for mirrored sunglasses (Morgan Woodward). The Captain and the Warden rule the camp harshly, often using solitary confinement in “The Box” (a small shack barely big enough to stand in), but Jackson’s irreverence wins him a following among the other prisoners – to the point that they’re even willing to help him with an escape attempt.
So it’s a little bit Great Escape and a little bit Shawshank Redemption, with a side of 60s Counterculture Rebelliousness and a bit of a darker fate.
I also feel like Jackson’s irreverence was irreverence for its own sake – and that didn’t feel like enough, strangely. The gang in The Great Escape were trying to secure a breakout for everyone in the camp; Jackson’s just trying to get himself out. As for Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, he bucks the system to improve conditions for the other men – spiffing up the prison library, collecting evidence of the warden’s exploitation, and playing out a very, very long escape attempt. Meanwhile, in Cool Hand Luke – save for one instance when he encourages the other prisoners to finish paving a road in a day so they can have the next day off – Jackson’s irreverence is simply about Sticking It To The Man. Which ultimately felt a bit…childish.
But Sticking It To The Man was very much the zeitgeist of 1967, and Paul Newman is charming about it. He also has a telling monologue late in the film, an angry prayer in which he curses God for stacking the deck against him; he knows he’s a screwup, and he knows he’s been dealt a bad hand. And he blames God for all of that. But he’d been dealt a similarly bad literal hand during a poker game and bluffs so well that he wins; it’s the moment he’s given the nickname “Cool Hand Luke”. And after lamenting his bad hand in the larger sense, he falls back on what he’s always done – tries to bluff and charm his way out of it. His monologue is one of the few times he’s not smiling and putting up a cocksure front, and it’s affecting. …It was just also a little too brief for me.