Cool Hand Luke (1967) Stuart Rosenberg


Contains spoilers

One of the most famous and most often misquoted lines in “Cool Hand Luke” happens when Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is captured after one of his escape attempts. The Captain played by Strother Martin hits Luke severely on his back sending him tumbling down a small hill. The Captain stands high above over Luke and the rest of the prisoners down below the hill.

“What we got here…is failure to communicate”

Even the newspaper ads of the day got it wrong printing “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”,  they printed. Of course it is catchier saying it this way and it worked. The phrase has become part of our vocabulary, and as another well-known catchphrase states “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

One of the most condescending Oscars nominations ever given came in a watershed year for American film, 1967. In a year that contained such worthy films as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “The Graduate”,”In Cold Blood” along with some fine foreign films one has wonder loudly how such over blown trash like “Doctor Doolittle” ever got nominated. It was patronizing enough that Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was given  a nomination, a film that patted itself on the back for its alleged liberal attitude, but “Doctor Doolittle” is pure animal excrement representing old Hollywood taking its final few breaths before collapsing into a coma in 1969. 1967 would also see Paul Newman at the peak of superstardom (when the title superstar actually meant something) in role that fit him and the times to a T, While “Cool Hand Luke” is not a masterpiece it would have certainly been more deserving of recognition from the Academy than Dr. Doolittle.

Local bad boy Lucas Jackson is placed in a prison camp for cutting off the heads of parking meters during one bored night of drinking. In prison Luke spits in the face of authority becoming a hero to his fellow prisoners as well as a target of the brutally sadistic guards. In the end the system wins, authority prevails over individuality.

“Cool Hand Luke” was a major financial hit and a film that connected with the rebellious youth culture of the 1960’s. The film is filled with lines that became catchphrases for the time. “Sometimes nothin’ is a real cool hand” and “Takin’ it off here, boss” along with the previously mentioned “failure to communicate” line are just a few of the lines that have become well worn over time.  The film is also loaded with memorable scenes that have become timeless in their own right like Luke’s bet that he can eat fifty eggs, the boxing match, the most sensuous car wash scene ever put on film with the voluptuous soapy Joy Harmon sponge squeezing, and raising temperatures, plus a sensitively moving scene between Luke and his mother Arletta, touchingly played by both Newman and Jo Van Fleet.

“Cool Hand Luke” is filled with a wealth of supporting talented actors, George Kennedy as Dragline who won a Best Supporting Actor Award for the role and Strother Martin as the prison camp Captain who famously delivers the “failure to communicate” line. The cast also includes plenty of others,  some already known, many who would become well-known in their own right within a few years either in film or television, like Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Richard Davalos, J.D Cannon, Lou Antonio, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Drivas, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite and Anthony Zerbe. Coincidently, there are some connections to James Dean here; most obviously with Dennis Hopper who was in “Rebel Without a Cause” but also with Richard Davalos who played Dean’s brother in “East of Eden” and Jo Van Fleet who portrayed his mother in the same film.

As I previously mentioned Paul Newman’s career was in the stratosphere by this time. He became a major star with Robert Rossen’s 1961 film, “The Hustler” and moved up to superstardom with films like “Hud”, “Hombre”, “Harper”, “Cool Hand Luke” (notice all the “H’s”) and the decade ending “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” There were lesser films in between, some decent and a few duds, but nothing seemed to dull his flame. Along with Steve McQueen, Newman owned the sixties.

The film should also be noted for its beautiful photography by Conrad Hall, one of the great cinematographers who makes the landscape look stunning at times, though I wonder if the photographic beauty is not really detrimental to the film’s overall vision.  Compare it to the 1930’s classic “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” with its dark and dank atmosphere.  While Luke and the other prisoners work out all day in the hot sun it does not look that bad in comparison to the day shift on Muni’s depression era chain gang. Of course, the intent of the films are different, “I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang” was an indictment on the Southern prison camps of its time while “Cool Hand Luke” had a much less modest goal.

The script was written by Frank Pierson, based on a novel by ex-convict Donn Pearce. The script’s quality is reflected early on in the film when Luke arrives at the prison and explains to the bewildered Captain (Strother Martin) why he cut off the heads of parking meters. “Small town, not much to do in the evening,” Luke responds which makes us believe he was just some idiot drunk destroying public property. Later on he mumbles to one of his fellow prisons the same thing but adds, “just settlin’ some old scores.” It’s a throwaway line said quietly and off-handed but the line helps define Luke’s character as being something more than just a drunk out on another boring evening. We also discover that Luke won the Silver and Bronze stars, a couple of Purple Hearts and made Sergeant, only he came out of the service the same way he went in, a Buck Private. When the Captain asked what happened? Luke responds “Guess you can say I was just passing time, Captain.” Ever the free soul, Luke goes his own way no matter what the cost.

Not all critics were in love with the film. Pauline Kael dissed it, Stanley Kaufmann detrimentally compared it to “Chain Gang” seeing Luke as a loser who committed a petty crime and got the deserved jail time, while Paul Muni’s character was an innocent man falsely convicted who struggles against the horrors of prison camp and is forced to turn to a life of crime after he escapes because of the system’s failure.  Both films do end on an ominous note, Muni fades into the night as his girl asked him “How do you live?” and he responds “I steal” and Luke is killed after his third and final escape attempt.

13 comments on “Cool Hand Luke (1967) Stuart Rosenberg

  1. Judy says:

    Really enjoyed reading this review, John – this is such a great movie. Among the scenes which stick in my mind the most are the nightmarish part where Newman is forced to dig a hole until he breaks down, and the scene where he plays the banjo (is that right?) after his mother’s death – apparently they originally wanted Bette Davis for the mother, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing the part better than Jo Van Fleet. I’m a bit puzzled by the film being criticised on the grounds that Luke had originally committed a (fairly minor) crime – surely this in no way weakens the indictment of the prison system contained in the movie.

    I’ve just finished reading Shawn Levy’s biography of Newman, which I found a little bit disappointing as it doesn’t have enough about the movies for my taste. Also it often feels a bit distant since he didn’t manage to interview many people who were really close to Newman, or the man himself – but it was still interesting and has left me eager to watch more of his films.


    • John Greco says:

      Newman has always been one of my favorite actors. He made about five or six films in the 1960’s that I just continually enjoy watching, THE HUSTLER, HUD, HARPER, HOMBRE, BUTCH CASSIDY, and this one. They many not all be great but all are enjoyable and possess the Newman charm that comes across the screen so smoothly.

      I have not read Levy’s biography yet but I am sure to get around to it for sure.

      Van Fleet is wonderful in her few scenes in the film. It is a very telling scene that he was obviously the favorite son while the other brother who seems to be the one taking care of the old lady is jealous and has no use for Luke. Thanks again Judy!


      • Judy says:

        He’s one of my favourites too – I love The Hustler, Hud and Butch Cassidy out of those you’ve mentioned, especially the last. I also really enjoyed his reprise of Fast Eddie in The Color of Money – and there are a lot of his other films I like too. He is always amazingly watchable, as you say.


      • John Greco says:

        Oh yeah, the films I mentioned were just my favorites of his from the sixties. He has done quite a few other wonderful films. Off the top of my head I can think of…

        Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
        Somebody Up There Likes Me
        The Color of Money
        Nobody’s Fool
        Mr and Mrs Bridges
        The Verdict
        The Sting
        The Rack
        Absence of Malice
        Sweet Bird of Youth (a 60’s film I forgot in my other note)


  2. Sam Juliano says:

    John, I am one who DOES believe that Hall’s cinematography was detrimental to the look of the film (yes the tone was dead-on for I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG)though it was hardly a fatal blow to a film that was justly celebrated for it’s examination of non-conformity. I also think it’s comical how the Oscars embraced drivel like DR. DOOLITTLE (and yes, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? was enough of a “compromise” Ha!) at the expense of this riveting film.

    John, I’d also add the often hysterical SLAPSHOT to that Newman short list.

    Also, Lalo Shifrin’s score is rhythmically attuned to the harrowing drama. I remember both Kauffmann and Kael’s reviews for the film, but they were both very tough to please in those days.

    Terrific work here through and through.


    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Sam, SLAPSHOT is a film that should be on this list for sure. Hall’s photography was beautiful and that was the problem, it was too beautiful. However the fine cast, the timely theme and the humor all make it work.


  3. Judy says:

    Great list of Newman films there – I’ve seen most of these but not all. I’d also add The Left-handed Gun and Paris Blues as great early films of his – and, at the other end of his career, he’s fantastic in Road to Perdition too.

    I’m slightly saddened that you both hate Dr Dolittle so much as I remember enjoying it as a kid, especially Rex Harrison’s “singing” on ‘If I could talk to the animals’ – I also loved the books as a child. However, I’m sure you are right it didn’t deserve an Oscar nomination.


    • John Greco says:

      Agree on those films. Both are interesting early films, The Left Handed Gun is an off-beat western for sure. His role in Road to Perdition was definitely on his best in the final years of his career and what a career!

      I am sure the book is a great children’s book but the film, which I just saw for the first time last Thanksgiving,(it happened to be on TV and the gathering of family forced me to watch it. I was opting for Miracle on 34th Street) left something to be desired and puzzled on how it received a nomination.


  4. I enjoyed the review and must say, this one passed me by.

    Guess I’ll have to seek it out.Cheers!


  5. R. D. Finch says:

    When I finally saw this a year or so ago, I was a bit disappointed. Newman is one of my very favorites, and I certainly agree about him owning the 60s (the way Brando owned the 50s). I thought he should have gotten the Oscar for “The Hustler” and “Hud.” But as good as he is in “Luke,” I never felt the movie satisfactorily explained why Luke had such a chip on his shoulder or why he went out of his way to alienate those in authority. Was he some kind of masochist? His vague brand of rebellion seemed rather pointless to me. What was he protesting against? The unfairness of his life? Or was he intended simply as another generic Christ-like martyr, as the ending in the church suggests. I wonder if the movie would have been so popular in a less anti-authoritarian era than 1967. And while the horrific prison scenes were the centerpiece of “I Am a Fugitive,” they weren’t the whole movie, which took pains to place the Muni character in a context. But the almost ritualistic suffering of Luke was practically the whole movie in “Cool Hand Luke,” and I found the experience of watching it something of an ordeal, as I always do in movies like this where the main character’s suffering seems to be an end in itself. Luke does one foolishly provocative thing after another and suffers another sadistic punishment, and this scheme became pretty predictable after a while, a sort of “What will he do next, and how will they top that last punishment?” plot. Still, as you point out it was quite well directed and acted; it’s only that for me the lack of convincing motivation for Luke’s behavior made for a weak foundation. I was surprised to read that much of it was filmed in the northern Central Valley of California, a region I know well. (It’s where “Fat City” was filmed too.) It sure did look like the hot, humid South. Hope I don’t sound too cranky about this movie! I did find things to like in it (all of which you cover–I even liked Hall’s photography), but it wasn’t as satisfying as its reputation and Newman’s presence had led me to hope. I also don’t understand how Kennedy won the best supporting actor Oscar over Gene Hackman in “Bonnie and Clyde.”


    • John Greco says:

      I don’t think this film would be popular if released in these more conservative times, it certainly fit the more rebellious mood of the sixties. While Luke’s rebellion seems pointless, I didn’t see anything different than say Brando’s in “The Wild One” where he is asked “What are you rebelling against Johnny and he responds, “Wadda ya got?” I know Newman loved to portray self destructive martyrs (The Hustler, Hud) and Luke fit the pattern. To me the film represented the unfortunate triumph of conformity over individualism, how the system beats you into submission. I was about 18 years old when it came out and it was a perfect fit. I can remember the lines outside the theater waiting to get in to the next showing. I do agree about the Best Supporting Actor award going to Kennedy over Gene Hackman who was brilliant as Buck Barrow. As Always, thanks again for your comments.


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