The Sixties was the decade of the rebellious anti-hero. The times they were a-changin’ and movies reflected the anti-establishment mood with BONNIE & CLYDE, EASY RIDER, and COOL HAND LUKE. Paul Newman starred as white-trash outsider Luke Jackson, but it was his co-star George Kennedy who took home the Oscar for his role as Dragline, the king of the cons who first despises then idolizes Luke.
War vet Luke gets busted for “malicious destruction of municipal property while drunk”, and sent to a prison farm in Florida. The non-conformist Luke butts heads with both the “bosses” (prison guards aka authority) and Dragline, a near illiterate convict who runs the yard. Dragline and Luke decide to settle their differences in a Saturday boxing match. The hulking Dragline beats the shit out of Luke, but the smaller man keeps getting up for more. Dragline finally walks away, and Luke earns both his and the other con’s respect. Luke gets a visit from his mom Arletta (Oscar winner Jo Van Fleet of EAST OF EDEN), who’s dying and wants to see him one more time. This poignant scene is one of the best as Luke and Arletta discuss his upbringing, and we can see despite the hardships endured in their lives, there’s a strong loving bond between mother and son. The scene’s done without any maudlin Hollywood bullshit, and well handled by Newman, Van Fleet, and director Stuart Rosenberg.
Then there’s the memorable egg-eating contest, where Luke bets he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour. Dragline backs his play, and the prisoners all put up their money as Luke devours egg after egg, winning the bet in a funny scene. The shot of him lying on the table, surrounded by eggshells, in a crucifixion pose is one of many Christ-like tableaux featuring Luke throughout the film. It gets a little heavy-handed, but it works in this case. Luke gets word his mother has died, and he’s not allowed to attend the funeral. He’s put in “The Box” (a sweltering shed the size of an outhouse) so he doesn’t get “rabbit blood” and try to escape. This only triggers his thirst for freedom, and he attempts a series of escapes, each time getting caught. The punishments get brutaler and brutaler but Luke’s indomitable spirit keeps him going until the tragic end.
Newman and Kennedy head up a great cast,with Strother Martin (“What we have here is failure to communicate”) as The Captain leading guards Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, and Robert Donner. The cons are played by J.D. Cannon, Wayne Rogers, Dennis Hopper, Ralph Waite, Harry Dean Stanton, and Joe Don Baker, among others. Then there’s Joy Harmon in a brief bit as a local lass washing her car on a hot Florida afternoon. She knows the men on the road gang are watching her, and she’s obviously getting off on turning them on:
Thank you, Joy!
Stuart Rosenberg began his directing career in the 50’s with the syndicated series DECOY, starring Beverly Garland as a female cop. He moved on to THE NAKED CITY, THE UNTOUCHABLES, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, and THE TWILIGHT ZONE before COOL HAND LUKE, his first feature. Rosenberg was a talented director who wasn’t very prolific, but the films he did make were well done. He worked with Newman in three more movies (WUSA, POCKET MONEY, THE DROWNING POOL) and also did LOVE & BULLETS (with Charles Bronson), THE (original) AMITYVILLE HORROR, THE POPE OF GREENWICH VILLAGE, and another prison drama, BRUBAKER, starring Newman’s pal Robert Redford.
As for Oscar winner Kennedy, COOL HAND LUKE made him a star after years of hard work in small roles. Kennedy was featured in all the AIRPORT and NAKED GUN movies, and had roles in THE DIRTY DOZEN, BANDOLERO!, FOOL’S PARADE, CAHILL US MARSHAL, and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. He starred in the TV police dramas PRIEST and THE BLUE KNIGHT, and the first four seasons of DALLAS. George Kennedy is still with us at age 91, semi-retired but popping up as recently as 2014’s THE GAMBLER with Mark Wahlberg. COOL HAND LUKE is a must-see for fans of 60’s cinema, with another fine Newman performance and a star-making turn for George Kennedy. Put it on your watch list!
Say goodnight, Joy!