Saturday, June 03, 2006

"Cool Hand Luke" Can't Sweat It

Cool Hand Luke. 1967. Dir. Stuart Rosenberg. Perf. Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D Cannon, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet.

Cool Hand Luke tells the story of a foolish young man who is sent to prison for two years after slicing the tops off parking meters late one night. Once he has landed himself in the prison camp, he quickly makes a name for himself by refusing to admit defeat in any venue, from a boxing match to a poker game to a bet that he can consume fifty eggs in an hour. Similarly, he proves particularly stubborn in his escape attempts, of which there are three. Throughout the film, Luke builds a sense of camraderie with his cohorts and portrays a continual sense of rugged stubbornness which carries through most of the film until a few darker scenes at the end depict his internal struggles and eventual brokenness.

The film struggles under two fatal flaws: first, it has no plot, and second, the character development happens briefly and abruptly in the space of about five minutes towards the end. Either of these two, taken independently, would be problematic but tolerable, but the juxtaposition of the two proves fatal: the film, left to its own devices, becomes little more than a showpiece for Paul Newman's chest and smile. (The latter is emphasized by a flashback sequence at the end, in case viewers have forgotten, in their brief respite from shots of the oft-barechested actor, the precise details of Paul Newman's smile).

It would be a grievous fault to say that Paul Newman "plays" Luke; indeed, Paul Newman plays himself and gets called Luke by his fellow actors, most likely because they are in character and are trying to remember that this is a movie and not simply a vehicle for Paul Newman to promote his smile. In terms of character, the title character is pitifully showcased by any other actor who has more than a dozen lines; most notably George Kennedy, who plays a lascivious inmate who quickly becomes Newman's (Luke's) biggest buddy, the somber "man with no eyes" who is eventually responsible for momentarily ssquashing Newman's happy-go-lucky confidence, and Luke's mother Arletta, played very well by Jo Van Fleet.

Arletta is not a woman anyone could admire, but she has a distinctive rough-and-ready personality. Even as she is dying, probably of lung cancer, she has herself conveyed to the prison camp in an impromptu bower fashioned onto the back of an old pickup truck. Between puffs of her cigarette, she conveys her love and slight disappointment in Luke, explains a few ddetails about her will and impending death, and vanishes all to soon, leaving the audience hungering for more. I suspect the viewers are more distraught than Newman at the news that Arleta, finally dead, will not be returning to the screen.

The remainder of the film passes in banalities. The audience is treated to vvarious disgusting displays of gluttony and brutality until, eventually Luke attempts three times to escape from the camp and evade the guards and dogs in heavy pursuit. Near the end of the film, Luke is driven away, mercifully, to annoy the audience no more with his shallow flippancy and exhausting dullness.

If you enjoy movies of sweaty barehested men, or have trouble sleeping at night and long for films that could lose races against turtles, this is the film for you. Otherwise, fans of film, beware: this is not the cinematic epic Hollywood would have us believe.