cool_hand_luke“He’s a natural-born world-shaker.” Its the perfect line to describe Paul Newman and his character Luke in Cool Hand Luke, a cinematic classic that helped establish Newman as one of his generation’s preeminent actors. The film easily ranks as a must-see for anyone, regardless of whether you consider yourself a hardcore film buff or not. Released in 1967, Cool Hand Luke is an allegory of the anti-Establishment attitude that pervaded society at the time. Its the social misfit/deviate/outlaw standing up to the legal, respectable defenders of society. This was not a new theme, but what was new about it was these new murderers were also charming, warm, loving, compassionate, and good-humored. The pursuers with badges were inevitably the humorless, inhuman ones. Given the outlaw protagonists, the new obligatory ending was the unhappy rather than happy one. The protagonists die; law or the Establishment triumphs over lawlessness.

Paul Newman is the deviate in Cool Hand Luke. He is sentenced to serve a 2-year stint in a chain gang where he befriends George Kennedy (who won an Oscar for his performance) and the rest of the chain gang. Newman’s crime is relatively trivial and harmless (destroying municipal property by cutting the heads off the meters), which I think the filmmakers purposely decided to do in order to make the audience empathize with the character more. Newman quickly wins over the loyalty of the entire chain gang with his charms and cool, laid-back attitude, which Newman does to perfection. George Kennedy plays another chain gang inmate who ends up becoming Newman’s loyal friend. I couldn’t place it at first, but I eventually realized the film was set in Louisiana (but it was shot in Stockton, California) and Kennedy had adopted a sort of Creole dialect. Kennedy is wonderful in this role. He and the rest of the chain gang are not so much criminals as kids who never grew up and never learned to take responsibility in their lives. The film doesn’t go into much detail, if any, on what crimes the inmates committed, but its easy to surmise that whatever they did wasn’t more than a minor misdemeanor. The characters, especially Kennedy, reminded me of overgrown Lost Boys whose goal in life is to simply enjoy it.

In contrast, we also have the warden who runs the chain gang and his crony guards. They are a constant, humorless, and menacing presence in the film. The most famous line in the film is spoken by the warden (“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”), who reminded me of an old Southern preacher. He believes in the virtue of hard physical work and unquestioning loyalty to authority as the only way to reform. The guards are humorless individuals who don’t say much. They are an example of a faceless Establishment who don’t question, but merely follow and force others to follow.

Cool Hand Luke is more a character study than a narrative-driven movie. It delves into the relationship between our society and its government, especially in how it existed in the late 1960s with the civil rights movement and the growing controversy of the Vietnam War. However, for film buffs, Cool Hand Luke also represented a shift in cinematic style. For one, gone was the old principle of studio scoring. Instead, there was little of this kind of background music that you always heard in older films. If there was to be music it had to be either clearly motivated (i.e. chain gang inmates playing songs on the guitar) or deliberately artificial. The new cinema of the late 60s also became self-consciously concerned with style – with visual texture, a careful attention to the dress, decor, and dialects of the historical era. This film was an example of a trend in shooting films on location rather than on soundstages. Instead of perfectly lit soundstages, these new films required accident and imperfection for their visual style and human credibility. This influenced a whole new generation of cinematographers such as Conrad Hall, the DP for this film and one of my favorite cinematographers.

This is an important film in many respects and its one that never fails to entertain no matter how many times I see it. Its a film that helped create a new style of filmmaking and it touched upon themes that reflected the zeitgeist of American society in the late 1960s. Cool Hand Luke is also an impressive showcase of Paul Newman’s and George Kennedy’s talents, which unfortunately it appears harder to replicate with today’s generation of actors. See this film.