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Cool Hand Luke (1967)

"Before viewing" talks don't have spoilers, but since there's no "After viewing" talk for this one, comments may have spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

Is the film worth your time?

What drives a wayward son to be wayward? What is waywardness, really? Cool Hand Luke hides these questions in every frame, and it’s not always clear who is the wayward one. This uncertainty gives the film a broad and deep question-richness that sets us nicely into a mode of simply engaging and observing, waiting until later to try to sort out just what’s really going on.

Along the way, many questions are asked, and many others implied. Is this life just a game to be played? Is anyone watching? Why should we care? To what do we submit as the prevailing order that might better be questioned? How might we bring the prevailing order into question, and what does it take to do so? When does violation become justice — or justice become violation? How do human power and the human spirit collide? And these are just some of the film’s more surface-level questions. I came away sensing that, in me, other questions were prompted that I can’t yet articulate, and that when I can, I’ll be changed because of it. Or maybe changed even if I can’t articulate them.

Among the shining points of Cool Hand Luke’s filmcraft is the presence of innumerable internal cross-references and significant shots of three seconds or less: A glance, an artifact, a turn, a repeated phrase — on it goes, each contributing something evocative toward the film’s work. Paul Newman superbly embodies Luke’s disaffected ways and, as the honcho of the prisoner community, George Kennedy makes a subtly parodied shill to Luke’s odd angle on life. Cool Hand Luke’s plot, by loosely connecting independent scenes across Luke’s tenure on the chain gang, brings focus to a variety of concrete scenarios showing how his angle on life plays out. Questions of faith and God’s activity in the world (or lack thereof) are directly and indirectly woven throughout. The film works even if you miss (or ignore) all of this, which makes engaging with it all the better.

Cool Hand Luke is very much worth the time, but do consider the prison context, which has inherent harshness (though the film does not pervasively dwell on the harshness). It will be most enjoyable, I think, when seen with a smallish group that can both relish its wonderfully played moments and dive fully into its questions.

Mid-20th century: It’s the middle of the night in a deserted small town square. Luke is alternately slogging on a beer bottle, cutting parking meters from their poles with a pipe cutter, and stumbling around. A police car pulls up, pinning Luke in the center of its blazing headlights. One of the officers says that Luke will need to go with them. Sitting, leaning for support against one of the poles, Luke looks and pauses, then lights into a wry smile. He winds up on a tightly run chain gang with a well-ordered prisoner community run by tough-guy Dragline. Luke’s independent and light-hearted ways make him an enigma to both guards and prisoners, and it’s no telling what Luke will do next. Running time: 126 min.

Cool Hand Luke is firmly set in the prison world, which can be a bit raw. Still, the (lightly played) language, sexuality, and nudity in the film serves the film’s exploration. There is more than a little language, though it is neither constant nor very strong. A couple of plays are made on male prisoners’ loneliness for female companionship, including one extended scene in which the chain gang is taunted by a girl washing a car. There are two very brief shots of male buttocks.

  • Director: Stuart Rosenberg
  • Screenplay: Donn Pearce & Frank Pierson, based on novel by Donn Pearce
  • Leads: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Morgan Woodward
  • Cinematography: Conrad Hall
  • Music: Lalo Schifrin


NOTE: Although Before viewing talks don't have spoilers, comments below MAY have spoilers
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