“Them clothes got laundry numbers on them. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends a night in the box. These here spoons you keep with you. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There’s no playing grab-ass or fighting in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playing grab-ass or fighting in the building spends a night in the box. First bell’s at five minutes of eight when you will get in your bunk. Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends the night in the box. There is no smoking in the prone position in bed. To smoke you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smoking in the prone position in bed … spends a night in the box. You get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top … the top sheet on the bottom … and the bottom sheet you turn in to the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one’ll sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sitting on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don’t bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud talking spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me. I’m Carr, the floor walker. I’m responsible for order in here. Any man don’t keep order spends a night in…”
You guessed it … the box. Enter our anti-hero, Luke. The anti-hero has become somewhat cliche today. What was once an artistic expression of the gray line between good and bad guys has morphed to the glorification of the just plain bad guy. We end up loving and rooting for such vicious characters like Vic Mackey, Tony Soprano, and Dexter Morgan. These are killers with nary a pang of conscience. Their deeds are always self-serving no matter what they pretend they might be. But if you go back far enough — most credit Marlon Brando’s coda performance in The Wild One — you’ll find there was once a far more nuanced kind of anti-hero. One of the industries best examples of this was Paul Newman’s troubled teenager, Luke. Luke wins us over with a charm and an honest belief that he’s a good guy. The archetype would later be pruned to perfection by Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s nest several years later. McNulty and Luke have a lot in common, and their environments and motivations aren’t all that different. In the end they’re both “broken” by the establishment, conforming to a code that did not allow guys like this to live happily ever after. Times and sensibilities have certainly changed, but performances like Paul Newman’s Luke remain to remind of us of a time when audiences just wouldn’t have been ready for the likes of Hill Street‘s Detective Buntz. Ironically, it would be Marlon Brando again who would be the first to make us root for a cold-hearted killer named Vito Corleone.
“What we have here is failure to communicate.”
Luke is what we used to call a juvenile delinquent. He was essentially bored and devoid of any serious human spirit. Here we find him cutting the tops off parking meters. He’s not spilling out the cash to put in his pocket, and he’s not doing it with any particular rage or reason. It’s simply something to do. When the cops arrest him, he’s pretty much smiling, although just like when he’s asked why he cut off the meters heads, he doesn’t have a clue as to why. He’s sentenced to two years in a road labor camp, a somewhat common punishment in the early south. At first he makes his way pretty quietly. He’s new fish, and trouble just isn’t something he could avoid. He ends up on the wrong side of the inmates’ “syndicate” leader, Dragline (Kennedy), and they settle all of their disagreements on a Saturday night with boxing gloves. Luke gets pummeled, and while he’s not good at fighting back, he keeps getting up. He’s starting to impress both cons or guards. Then he enters a poker game where he bluffs his way into a sweet pot, where he earns the titular nickname. That’s the kind of wit and boldness that ends up getting the friendship of Dragline, and before long the two of them are coming up with odd things to bet on, which appears to be the number one diversion here. It leads to one of the film’s many iconic scenes where he claims he can eat 50 soft-boiled eggs in an hour. Dragline promotes the event and the requisite betting action like Don King promoting a heavyweight championship bout. It’s both an amusing and entertaining scene, but it’s an important one as well. Luke is now bonding with these guys, and they’re really the closest thing he’s had to a family all his life. He becomes their hero of sorts.
Another one of those famous scenes involves Joy Harmon washing the boss’s car. For 1967 it was quite suggestive. Harmon claims that she wasn’t aware of the sexual inferences of the scene, but no one can be that stupid. What’s funny here is that the suggestive nature of the scene is rather bolstered by the reactions of the inmates even though the two parts of the scene were filmed separately. Sometimes the reaction makes you believe you’ve seen more than you really did. It’s actually a bit of a surprise that it wasn’t cut in 1967. Judge for yourself.
With his confidence up and just the idea that he wanted to see if he could get away with it, Luke ends up involved in a couple of escapes. Of course, he doesn’t get far, and once he sends a faked magazine photo showing him at a fancy club with great looking girls on each arm, and they now live their “freedom” vicariously through Luke. Of course, Luke gets caught again, and you know what we like to do with heroes who let us down. They turn their backs on him, but only long enough for that charming smile and wit to win their hearts again in a finale that’s heartbreaking, somber, and brilliant. Like Nicholson’s future McNulty, the establishment always breaks these kinds of men, and in those days that wasn’t just the trend, it was kind of the rules. But rules are meant to be broken. It doesn’t matter if you’re cutting the tops off parking meters or just trying to buck an unfair system. It would just take a few more years for those rules to get broken. When they were, it was a floodgate that gave us some of the most compelling characters in cinema and television history.
Paul Newman made a career out of playing the everyman, but with a certain hidden strength that often his characters didn’t understand or even know existed. A lot of that started here. Luke’s relationship with his fellow cons is the most compelling aspect of the film. We find ourselves less concerned with the story and happy just to spend time with these characters. Luke goes from basically not caring about anything including himself. But when he sees that he hurt these guys’ feelings, it almost destroys his spirit. He never knew he cared so much, and even then amidst his final breakdown, he still doesn’t know he cares. I love performances where you can see an actor change without the story having to tell you so. This was the first film where Newman shone with just his acting chops alone. And then there’s that charm. Director Stuart Rosenberg would end up with four successful collaborations with Newman. He understood that you surround him with a good cast, develop explosive chemistry, and just let it play out. It’s the simplest idea in the world, but some directors still don’t know how to get out of the way.
The film is most certainly populated by a great cast, hugely unknown at the time, who develop such wonderful chemistry. And what’s rare here is that it’s not there from the start. The joy of this film is watching it happen with faces you know now, but that an audience in 1967 really didn’t.
This was the first film for Anthony Zerbe as Dog Boy. He’d go on to deliver exceptional performances in films like Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man, They Call Me Mr. Tibbs, The Dead Zone, and the James Bond film Licence To Kill. His television resume includes The Rockford Files, Columbo, and a recurring role on The Equalizer. It was also the first film for Ralph Waite, who we all know better as John Boy’s daddy on The Waltons. It was only the second feature for Wayne Rogers, who played the lovable Trapper John in the first few years of M*A*S*H. We also have Harry Dean Stanton, a very young Dennis Hopper, and George Kennedy would pick up an Oscar for his performance as Dragline.
One of the underrated performances in the film comes from Morgan Woodward, who plays one of the chain gang bosses. He’s almost always covered with a big hat and reflective sunglasses. He has little to say, but whenever he calls for his rifle, it’s delivered by a con. He takes the bolt from his belt and puts together the rifle in time for it to do all of his talking, which is pointed out by Luke early in the film. Clifton James plays yet another deep south lawman with the same kind of relish he ever has. Strother Martin delivers the iconic line, and he’s almost as compelling as Newman himself, but not for his charm.
The film also contains one of the best scores of the time. It was written by Lalo Schifrin. You might not know the name, but you know the work. You’re about to get another big dose of his theme from Mission Impossible at the box office.
Cool Hand Luke is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 80 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. The film retains just enough of the natural grain that all of the organic elements of the atmosphere remain. Color isn’t bright or vivid, nor should it be. But it is very deep and accurate. I was particularly impressed with the green paint job on the boss’s house. Costumes are dirty-denim-like. It’s time-accurate, and there’s a lot of texture here with stains and the sloppy painted inmate numbers that could be anywhere on an article of clothing. During the boxing match, look at Luke’s head. The combination of sweat, matted hair, dirt, and red skin coming up through the hair is one of the more natural moments in the film. The realism is quite good here. Black levels aren’t perfect, but they deliver in those night scenes and when Newman is trying to escape. It’s just enough shadow detail to give you the illusion of watching a man running with a hint of moonlight. The cinematography here is outstanding, and this image presentation respects that greatly, as should you. The drab ultra-realism translates perfectly here. HDR/Dolby Vision, and resolution isn’t supposed to make a drab atmosphere look glossy and shiny. If it does, it’s time for someone to retire.
The DTS 2.0 Mono track delivers exactly what it’s intended to deliver. The dialog is crisp with some nice added sub to give it depth. Lalo’s score is part of the mood, and while there are plenty of accents here, it never intrudes on the film. As good as it is, it knows its place.
The only extra found on the UHD is the ported-over half-hour feature from the earlier release.
Warner is on this kick to celebrate 100 years with 100 classics. The restorations and UHD releases are the best news to come out of the studio this year. The Discovery merger and actions since have put them in the spotlight for all of the wrong reasons, and I have had conversations with fellow critics about the studio’s ability to survive. When you get your hands on classics like The Maltese Falcon, Rebel Without A Cause, and Cool Hand Luke, and you see the attention being given to these releases, that’s how the studio will survive. Take care of your past, and it can more than take care of your future. It’s a good time to be a home entertainment critic with classics like this being seen like this for the first time … often in forever. Some of you tell me that ain’t nothin’. “Yeah, well … sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”