Though Cool Hand Luke (1967) falls outside the classically defined borders of “horror”, the Scribe was unexpectedly moved while re-watching the picture on Warner’s new Blu-Ray disc. I had unfairly placed Luke in that same lock box as The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde; films whose iconography and subtext are forever mired in overt late-60s symbolism, dooming them to over-analyzation in college film study courses until the end of time.
I had always considered it a creature of pure symbolism –technique rather than human drama (chalk & cheese they may be, but I still prefer the Southern-fried prison gang scenes in The Longest Yard any day). And though the Christ symbolism is still a bit over-baked (even the famous magazine shot that Luke sends back to the prison gets ripped in the shape of a crucifix) and the use of busy-work earth moving amongst prisoners had been better exploited by Sidney Lumet a few years earlier in The Hill, director Stuart Rosenberg’s remarkable first feature has aged pretty damn well. It’s kind of incredible that he had never made a feature film prior to this; successfully jumping from the 1.33x1 ratio of television (where he had worked for most of the decade) to the 2.40 Panavision frame is no easy feat, particularly when you’ve got an enormous supporting cast that is present in the frame for most of the running time and almost never seeming “posed”. And what a cast – the film is a veritable watering hole for talented young actors, many fresh from the Actor’s Studio and getting their first real exposure. George Kennedy has a ball as the boisterous lug Dragline and won the Supporting Actor Oscar for his trouble, but look closely for Wayne Rodgers, Luke Askew, JD Cannon, Clifton James, Anthony Zerbe, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite, and even Dennis Hopper in what must have been a humiliatingly small role (but one that he was lucky to get considering the wreckage of burned bridges that lay behind him in Hollywood at the time).
It also nicely continues the Warner Bros prison film tradition that stretches back to the early 1930s, when a bullpen of talent that included Bogart, Cagney, and Muni helped the studio muscle their way to the top of the “social consciousness” picture heap. In the early 30s the studio cagely exploited a depression-era mistrust of authority, particularly in the form of law enforcement or politicians. Many average citizens cheered the exploits of Bonnie & Clyde and John Dillinger because they robbed banks – a perfect symbol of a system that many believed had betrayed the average working man – and casting a charismatic actor like James Cagney as near psychopath Tom Powers in White Heat (‘31) allowed Warner to have their cake (who doesn’t like watching Cagney roughing people up?) and eat it, too (with a chilling ‘crime doesn’t pay’ ending). Newman’s Luke is no psycho – it’s rather unlikely that he would have been sent up for hard labor as punishment for the crime we see him committing in the film’s opening moments – but he has roots that stretch back to Paul Muni’s James Allen from I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (‘32) only with 60’s existential individualism usurping 30’s social outrage. The enforcement of the Hayes code in 1935 meant the end of the anti-hero in Hollywood for many years, but Cool Hand Luke helped Warner Bros to get back in touch with its roots.
Another nice surprise in re-watching Luke was catching the emotional punch that had eluded me on earlier viewings. I always took Luke for a cipher; a walking metaphor for the death of the individual without much of a backstory. But, in one of the film’s key scenes, Luke's mother, Arletta (the great Jo Van Fleet) comes to visit; the ensuing scene is an absolute beauty, giving us a perfect picture of Luke’s restless life through a few minutes of casual conversation. She remains prone in a truck bed throughout their meeting, and it’s clear that she’s come to see her troubled child one last time. With so many famous lines (Strother Martin’s delivery of the classic “…failure to communicate” line made him one of the most popular characters in Hollywood) and scenes (50 eggs, car wash, road tarring, et al) this quiet moment can too easily slip under people’s radar, but it shows what a fine screen actor Paul Newman could be when he wasn’t tempted by any of his more overripe ‘smile & wink’ gestures; an affliction that nearly derails an otherwise fine picture like Harper (’66) several times. But watch Newman in the scene immediately after hearing of Arletta’s death in a telegram; he picks up the banjo that she had given him during her visit and walks over to a bunk and begins to sing “Plastic Jesus” to himself. It may be Newman’s finest moment on film, showcasing a subtlety too seldom found in the first half of his career.
Conrad Hall’s beautiful, high-contrast cinematography and Rosenberg’s assured composition were nearly a hopeless cause when viewed in cropped form on television or VHS, but the new Blu-Ray disc finally gives people the chance to see the fine detail that had been lost even in its previous standard-def DVD incarnation. Unlike several older catalog titles being overhauled for high-def disc, Luke hasn’t been victimized by over use of digital noise reduction – a process applied by studios to hammer out film grain (much of which was present from the moment light was first exposed to the celluloid) and give older films an image more recognizable to audiences raised on Michael Bay. When applied with restraint, as with Columbia’s The Professionals, the results are stunning, with vibrant colors and rich detail within each frame. When too much is applied, as with Fox’s Patton, the results are digital-clean, but human figures take on a waxy appearance, resulting in a cruely ironic loss of fine detail. Thankfully, Luke resides in the former camp, with a nicely warm, film-like appearance that reflects the look intended by Rosenberg and Hall. A better evocation of the warm summer sun on 35mm film is difficult to find. Also included are a reasonably informative commentary track by Newman biographer Eric Lax, a 30min documentary featuring many of the supporting cast (including Kennedy, Antonio, James, and Zerbe) which finally addresses how Lalo Schifrin's music for the road tarring sequence wound up as the Eyewitness News theme, and the original theatrical trailer.