Tuesday, 24 June 2014

1,001 Films: "Cool Hand Luke" (1967)

Arriving as further evidence of the new ways of thinking sweeping through Hollywood in the late 1960s, Cool Hand Luke is every institutional movie - every prison drama, every high-school pic - ever made, but done almost as a road movie, playing out under bright blue skies that rhyme with its leading man's eyes. Though it's constructed around a product of the studio system - Paul Newman as Lucas "Luke" Jackson, sentenced to five years clearing highways for snapping the heads off parking meters - Stuart Rosenberg's film boasts enough significant faces of the New Hollywood (Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, the latter still paying dues in the year of Easy Rider) to give notice of what was about to emerge in its wake. Hot on Cool Hand Luke's heels would come the globetrotting Papillon, Escape from Alcatraz and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (directed by a Czech émigré): films more than ever committed to the sight of lifers seeking liberty from oppressive regimes in the pursuit of happiness.

What's especially subversive about Rosenberg's film is that its prison is - knowingly - archetypally American: a haven for shirtless jocks and outsiders, putting in a full day's work beneath the hot sun under the noses of faceless bosses, the mind-numbing repetition of manual labour only broken by such distractions as the buxom young blonde who helpfully elects to soap down her car in front of the boys (oh, look: she's only gone and squidged the suds down the front of her flimsy dress!) or the bet that involves swallowing fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour, which provided an instant classic scene, and the inspiration for several seasons' worth of Man vs. Food. (The resort to unbridled consumption: what could possibly be more American than that?) The fact all this unfolds around the Bible Belt - with Luke picking up a banjo and trilling a song about a plastic Jesus figurine as a tribute to his late mother (and subsequently obliged to don white robes as punishment for such flagrant self-expression) - pretty much seals the deal on any metaphorical reading you might wish to bestow upon it.

For, unlike Easy Rider, which enthralled longhairs while sending their folks off to write long, concerned missives to the Christian Science Monitor, it's possible Cool Hand Luke was one of those films both generations would have taken different (positive) things from upon the moment of its first release. While broadly conventional in its storytelling, it may just be the most leftist American film of its period, a tribute to the solidarity of the prisoners, doomed as it might be. In any other feature, good-ol'-boy Arthur Kennedy (one of those actors who looked sixty when he was in his thirties) would become Luke's nemesis; instead, he becomes his closest disciple - at least until the rupture in a surrogate Gethsemane that seals the pair's fates for good. (The studio tacks a Band-Aid of starry close-ups over this rift, but the outcome is somehow even more despairing than that of Cuckoo's Nest: here, no-one breaks free, and everyone is expected to show up for work the next day, in a sorrier state than before.) If Newman initially seems a shade too poised and groomed to convince as the survivor of a broken home - one of those production-line problems the dream factory has never quite ironed out - there's something effective in the way this scenario makes him sweat alongside everybody else, gradually corroding his lustre. The moral of this reliably entertaining, still-resonant endeavour is that - whether or not you rely on parking meters for your fortune - in a system such as this, this could happen to you, too.

(April 2013)

Cool Hand Luke is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.

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