“Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
Cool Hand Luke is an American film by all accounts. It boasts a rebellious, masculine spirit that seems to triumph against convention. It’s a loose ensemble piece with a mysterious Christ figure at its helm. It reminded me of both The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, both films about imprisonment and the mental decay it can cause in a man. Despite the 4:3 aspect ratio on which I was forced to watch the movie, I enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly its cinematic innovations coupled with its barrels-of-fun populist appeal.
Luke (Paul Newman) is sentenced to two years in a chain gang prison for cutting the heads off parking meters on a bored, drunken evening. In prison, he develops a friendship with tough guy Dragline (George Kennedy) after refusing to back down from a boxing match. In turn, he earns the admiration of the entire prison, and they begin to view him as a hero, particularly when Luke rebels against the administration of the prison and ultimately attempts to escape.
Similar to The Graduate, which came out the same year, this movies lulls you into a familiarity of watching a 1960s movie at times, but then it strikes you with beautiful cinematography and storytelling decisions that seem well ahead of its time. The depiction of the prison warden comes to mind: his silent but menacing presence with destructive potential hidden beneath his sunglasses. There’s also the “coming together” scenes like the egg-eating contest that are photographed with such delight that you forget you’re watching a prison movie.
There’s a lot to love about Cool Hand Luke, and I can’t get behind it as a masterpiece, but I was thoroughly entertained without much else to say. It’s a cleverly arranged tale of dignity, friendship, and lots of other big movie values. I think this duality is what interested me the most: its conventional appeal to people like my Dad while also boasting cutting edge formal elements with its cinematography at the forefront.
I really appreciate the careful construction of Cool Hand Luke, and if I’ve learned anything from it, it’s that movies are meant to be watched in widescreen format like God intended.
Films Left to Watch: 846