Greetings again from the darkness. Entirely too many years have passed since I last saw this movie, so when Cinemark included it in the summer classic film series, I was in my seat nice and early. Mention this movie and the first thing people do is quote one of the most famous lines in movie history: “What we’ve got here – is failure to communicate.” No question that’s a great line. But there is so much more to this movie and it holds up beautifully 45 years after release.
Based on the novel by Donn Pearce, who spent two years on a chain-gang, this is the story of Luke (Paul Newman) who just can’t bring himself to conform to the rules, regardless whether those be the rules of the military, society, prison, or self-imposed by his fellow convicts. We are introduced to Luke as he drunkenly cuts off the top of parking meters on main street of a small town. Later, in a throw away line, we learn he was gaining revenge on someone. It’s the clear indication that while he doesn’t always want to fit in, Luke clearly knows right from wrong.
There are so many terrific scenes in this film, that it’s not possible to discuss each. Every scene with the prison warden, played by Strother Martin, is intense. Each of the Boss guards are frightening, especially Morgan Woodward as the sharpshooter behind the mirrored shades. There are numerous impactful scenes featuring the group of convicts. Even though we learn little about the individuals, we realize the fragile male psyche is on full display. Despite the power of all of these characters and scenes, the real strength of the film is the relationship between Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy). Watching the early cat and mouse game, and the subsequent transfer of power, we realize this is two amazing actors at the top of their game.
George Kennedy rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor award and continued on to become one of the most successful and prolific character actors of the 70’s and 80’s, and his career culminated with his iconic role in the Naked Gun series. As for Paul Newman, this is one of his best performance in a long line of standout performances. This one is in the middle stage of his career and he exuded manliness with a touch of sensitivity. He and Strother Martin would meet again in one of the best sequences of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Watching Luke win over all the convicts, including the previous leader played by Kennedy is stunning, yet gut-wrenching when offset by the scenes with the guards who are hell bent on getting Luke to understand his place. They understand the risk he poses to the systematic rhythms of the prison. What no one seems to understand is Luke’s odd need for misery … he allows himself only moments of joy before lapsing back into some odd form of sacrifice. Study the famous egg scene. 50 eggs. 50 inmates. The pain he endures and the scene ends with a crucifix pose. Now take that to the final few scenes that take place in the church. Luke is asking the questions, but he refuses to hear the answer.
The supporting cast is downright incredible. This was the feature film debut for: Ralph Waite (4 years later he became the beloved paternal figure of TV’s “The Waltons”); Joe Don Baker (Buford Pusser from Walking Tall); James Gammon (later the crusty manager in Major League); and Anthony Zerbe, another iconic character actor of the 70’s and 80’s. Also featured are Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton (singing a few songs), Wayne Rogers (from “MASH”), Richard Davalos (James Dean’s brother Aron in East of Eden), and Rance Howard (Ron’s dad as the sheriff). In a brief, but truly great scene, Jo Van Fleet (also from East of Eden), appears as Arletta, and we quickly understand Luke’s background and inability to find himself.
Often overlooked by film historians, “Lucille” putting on a show for the convicts as she washes her car, is a scene that is meant for more than titillation. As she creatively buffs the windows, the reaction of the convicts reminds us that these are still men and no amount of humiliation and degradation can change that. One of my friends (Big E) argues that Joy Harmon was clearly cheated out of an Oscar for this scene.
The score is the handy work of Lalo Schifrin and expertly captures the moment … especially in the black tar scene. Director Stuart Rosenberg (working here with the great Conrad Hall) was known only for his TV work when he got this script. He went on to direct another prison movie in 1980 called Brubaker. Starring Newman’s Butch Cassidy co-star Robert Redford, the film was a decent prison drama, but not at the level of Cool Hand Luke … which by the way, was installed into the National Film Registry in 2005.