Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 12 June 11, 1968
Films — Variations on Violation. Paul Newman as 'Cool Hand Luke'
Variations on Violation. Paul Newman as 'Cool Hand Luke'
Cool Hand Luke is the finest film of the year, so far. It will probably have passed unnoticed by most people (who still seem only to be attending the "In the tradition of . . ." series, if nothing else) as did the wry brutalities of Point Blank.
The film seems to work on a hiatus-level system ("a film about a man and the system, any system") epically depicting the suffering of chain-gang workers by their brutal bosses and the persistance of one Lucas Jackson to break the system as much as possible. It is admirably faithful to Donn Pearce's fine novel, who collaborated on the films screenplay with Frank R. Pierson.
Newman has been working to achieve this part for years (he looks 10 years younger). As Cool Hand Luke he achieves a rare spirituality, "a performance of smiles" (as someone remarked), and his presence among his fellow prisoners, holds together possibly the last thing they will achieve in their suffering and inevitable death.
In the opening sequences as Luke is drunkenly knocking off the heads of parking meters, a red sign fills the screen Violation. The film is all variants on violation. Luke's fellow prisoners begin to worship and take an intensely personal attitude towards him after a series of escapes, the warnings and brutal slashes of the captain (a hysterical Strother Martin), and the speechless stick wielding Blind Dick (Richard Davalos—his reflectory steel glasses provide some of the most horrifying cinematic wizardry in years).
Scene after beautiful scene, the men are seen working on road, sides, slashing grass, sweating, yelling "take it off boss?" and goaded by Luke's indominitable spirit to crush the "non communicable," ever staring gun-slung bosses.
The print and tonal snading is incredible. Outside scenes have a rare unbelievable colouring that defies the most primitive and hackneyed description. This is due to Conrad Halls photographic direction—he did a splendid job on Divorce American-Style, and soon in Richard Brook's In Cold Blood—and it is hard to believe the film is the second by Stuart Rosenberg. His first was Murder Incorporated with Stuart Whitman, and he has been credited with some of The Invaders series on TV.
A lot of TV technique is used, especially a telephoto lens (rather than the aborted zoom) and huge close-ups which explore the Panavison screen superbly.
Lalo Schifrin's score is wild and nervous, sparked with blues songs that marvellously keep in step with the mood. George Kennedy, usually a sinister "heavy", is Dragline, Lukes best friend. It's a loud compassionate performance that earned him a best supporting actor award in the 1968 Oscars (contrary to what Christchurch papers billed as '67!). It is he and Luke who eventually escape (the third time), leading to a big scene in an old empty chapel, with Luke's sombre vocalize in true Tennessee Williams style. The "system" surrounds him and shoots him in the neck. He is still smiling. Failure to communicate— by death!
Jo Van Fleet as his ma provides one of the saddest moments in the film, as she visits Luke at the camp, propped up in the back of an old van. It is obvious she is consumptive, and sometimes her "farewell" words are chocked back by her condition.
There is also a terse sequence with a Southern belle (Joy Harmon) washing a car, flaunting herself adequately through suds and a hose at the gang working across the road. It is one of the most erotically stimulating scenes, surely, since an episode in Hurry Sundown (not to be found in this review thank you!).
Never has a film about a group of men in a "lifelong predicament", been so absorbing that it infuses every inch of mind and body with an emotion of suffused delight. It certainly makes the reactionary delicacies of Bonnie and Clyde look like the rare shadow that it was, and it will be a long time before an American film of this stature and calibre is seen here again—probably In Cold Blood, which has had an outstanding opening in Aussie. So, if you haven't seen Cool Hand Luke, and it is still on, don't arrive late, its well over 2 hours long.