'Cool Hand Luke': THR's 1967 Review

Cool Hand Luke - H - 1967
Succeeds as both a highly humorous and deeply dramatic study of the immolation of human spirit in captivity and as an allegory.

On Nov. 1, 1967, Warner Bros. unveiled director Stuart Rosenberg's prison drama Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, in theaters. The film went on to be nominated for four Oscars at the 40th Academy Awards, winning one in the supporting actor category for George Kennedy. The Hollywood Reporter's original review, headlined "Rosenberg's Megging on Pic 'Cool Hand Luke' Excellent," is below: 

Stuart Rosenberg, with his second completed theatrical film, Warners' Cool Hand Luke, makes a powerful bid for a position among the top ranks of directors for the big screen. Luke, adapted for the screen by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson from Pearce's novel of comradeship and individual conflict on a southern chain gang, is the product of Jack Lemmon's Jalem Productions and is a potentially strong release. Gordon Carroll produced with a cast featuring a formidable lineup of male actors, an outstanding cameo appearance by Jo Van Fleet, and Paul Newman, dropping his "H's" to star in the title role. 

Newman's Luke is highly individual though enigmatic, a born loser, with more guts than brains, who has always tried to live free and above board. He finds himself assigned to the chain gang with the Dept. of Prisons Roads Company #36 as a result of a rebellious night of good-natured drunkenness and roughhouse. Possessed of an unbreakable cool, he refuses to bow to the system or admit defeat in personal battles. To the men with whom he is imprisoned he becomes a symbol of indomitable individuality. Yet human symbols are always vulnerable, and just as quickly, they reject him, when it appears that he has chosen to grovel at the feet of his wardens to avoid further harassment. It is simply a ruse by which he hopes to facilitate his third attempt to escape. It is foredoomed and his martyrdom fertilizes the perpetuation of his legend. 

Well written by Pearce and Pierson and acted by a most talented ensemble of performers, Luke succeeds as both a highly humorous and deeply dramatic study of the immolation of human spirit in captivity and as an allegory. Luke is clearly a contemporary Christ figure, an analogy complete to his denial by the disciples, the final agony in the garden, the confrontation with a betrayer and his sacrifice for humanity. These do not emerge as parody, though there are moments of visual overstatement as in the lingering, overhead shot of the exhausted Newman in a crucifixion pose. This follows Newman's accomplishment in the small miracle of consuming 50 hard-boiled eggs. 

The balance between story and significance is a delicate one, but Rosenberg maintains it overall, despite a few moments of arty camera work and some heavy-handed underlining of the Christ parallel. Though at times Rosenberg seems to overextend probing use of zooms in closeups, panoramic reflections in sunglasses and repetitious use of traveling closeups of walking feet, these moments do not disrupt the whole, do not intrude upon audience involvement with the characters and conflicts. That they do not is a tribute to Rosenberg's controlled style, that highly elusive and often lamented ingredient that distinguishes the work of the finest filmmakers. 

Given that direction, and excellent characterization and dialogue by Pearce and Pierson, the large cast shines. Newman is excellent as Luke, though ultimately the situations and the reactions of his peers tell us most of what we know of him. As a final montage reminds us at the end of the film, what we remember of him is his cool smile throughout the punishments to "get his mind right" and a succession of quixotic gestures of defiant individualism. But Newman is among a few current stars who could so totally embody the spirit of today's uncommitted individual.

As the boisterous leader of the barracks community, who loses a fight in which he bests the still slugging remnant of Newman, George Kennedy gives an outstanding supporting performance as Newman's staunchest, though weak, supporter. One is reminded of the sentimental, beefy performances of Victor McLaglen. In a brief appearance as Newman's dying mother, Jo Van Fleet delivers one of her finest performances in a scene which is also Newman's best, the film's best and one of those scenes which should be coveted by actors' workshops for years to come. 

Strother Martin provides a superior portrait of sorghum-coated decadence as the Captain of the compound. J.D. Cannon is allowed less footage than his billing suggests, but delivers well in his few scenes. Lou Antonio, as one of the men Newman challenges to "stop feedin' off of me; get out there yourself," makes a promising impression, while Robert Drivas, Dennis Hopper, Dean Stanton, Richard Davalos, Marc Cavell and Wayne Rogers etch distinctive individual characterizations. Clifton James is good as the leader of the barracks, while Luke Askew and Morgan Woodward stand out in roles as bosses of the road gang. Joy Harmon is lasciviously sensuous in a mimed sequence wherein she taunts the men while washing a jalopy. Author Pearce also plays a bit part. 

Conrad Hall's Technicolor and Panavision is exceptional, glowing with the burnished colors of location sites at the San Joaquin River Delta in California. Sound by Larry Jost and the sharp editing of Sam O'Steen also deserve applause, as do the carefully authenticated settings by Cary O'Dell. Lalo Schifrin's score is perhaps the best he has done for films, a credit to the pervading unity of effort in the production. He has incorporated folk spirituals, source instrumentation and submerged rumblings of violent rhythms to underscore the burning torments of work on the roads. — John Mahoney, originally published May 31, 1967.