Thursday, August 19, 2010

Not Much to Do in the Evening: Cool Hand Luke

| by Justin Thomas |

Saying Cool Hand Luke is a great movie is hardly a newsflash, is it.

It’s already been included in the National Film Registry. It includes the key performance of one of the key movie stars in the history of Hollywood. It’s been analyzed for fact on The History Channel and has been targeted by the Mythbusters to see whether a bloodhound can be thrown off a scent through the use of curry powder. In its 43 years of existence, Cool Hand Luke has been applauded just about as much as a film can be applauded not only in its filmmaking but as an example of the national mindset of the time in which it was made.

Cool Hand Luke isn’t just a great movie. Cool Hand Luke is a cinematic treasure.

If I may, Luke’s ascendency to mythological status within the prison more closely mirrors that of Brian’s ascendency in Life of Brian than it does to Jesus Christ. Brian just happens to be on the periphery of the action and, without it being a goal, winds up gaining a following. Luke becomes the prisoners’ proxy not because he wants to show them the way, show them the light, but because he was bored, the same conscious act that got him in trouble in the first place. They see him as showing them the light, the way, they desperately need him to not break in the prison yard while digging his grave, but Luke is not a messenger. He doesn’t see himself that way. Until the Captain unleashes the rebel in Luke, Luke did nothing other than try to find a way to pass the time.

Cool Hand Luke doesn’t hide its hand at all. When we first learn about Luke, we know he became a war hero and progressed through the ranks but left the Army the same rank as when he entered. Long before he decapitated authority by decapitating the parking meters, he fought back against the military authority enough to have them take steps against him. So a character with known problems with authority is put into a prison.

Where can that possibly go? He’s in the yard when the other prisoners first take him during the boxing match with Dragline. To help the audience along, Luke does his digging in the yard with the other prisoners watching. The Captain gives the “What we got here” line and then Luke gives it, too. If you can figure out the end of Barton Fink, I applaud your ability to comprehend a frustratingly difficult concept. Cool Hand Luke is more accessible.

Saying Paul Newman was a good actor is hardly a newsflash, is it.

He hides well what Luke is really after even though he puts it right on the table. Does he at any point in the movie see it as his responsibility to help set free the other prisoners minds and souls? Until his mother tells him he was boring the Hell out of everyone maybe, maybe not, but once he determines he should stop being boring there is no doubt he’s not there to start a revolution. He just wants to make the time slightly more enjoyable as it passes. Would he have gone through the escapes if the Captain hadn’t taken the preemptive step of putting him in the box? Maybe, maybe not, but once the Captain takes that step there is nothing short of escape or death that will allow Luke to function. Newman had the smile and the eyes to, well, make Dragline’s final lines about that cool smile plausible. But he could also suggest things going on behind both the smile and the eyes without using a sledgehammer to make the point. In this role, Newman’s ability to do things without doing things helps sell it and sell the idea that Newman had something few others had.

He wasn’t just a great actor. He should be included in any conversation where people try to determine the best ever.

“Way to step out on a limb there, jerk,” is how most people respond when I offer that idea.

This week I got a chance to watch Newman in three movies and two of the three are hardly stretches into his filmography. Cool Hand Luke is a necessary film to not only see but know and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a ton of fun. Newman’s parts in those movies are career-defining parts and it happens to be the career of Paul Newman. Now and again I’ll go back and go a little deeper into his body of work, but where I started is a good place to start. Nearly two years after his death I came to one conclusion over the past week: the world is a little less interesting without Paul Newman in it. He certainly wasn’t boring.

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