Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
“Stop feeding on me!”
Minutes into Cool Hand Luke, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is arrested for drunkenly cutting off the tops of parking meters. When the police catch him he doesn’t run, just smiles. Then he suddenly finds himself on a chain gang, with no real hurry to get out.
Luke’s crime is kind of perfect. It suggests a certain waywardness and rebellious streak that makes him quite charming and which runs through the rest of the film. He will work his way through the social hierarchy of the small prison in which he finds himself and from there make a series of escape attempts without ever really figuring out what to do once he’s out.
The title comes from a nickname given to him by fellow inmate Dragline (George Kennedy), after a card game Luke wins with a good bluff. He has nothing, Dragline realizes, just as he had nothing in the tank when Dragline beat him to a pulp in a boxing match. No matter how many hits he took, Luke just kept on getting up, eventually telling the inmate that he’d have to kill him to keep him from standing up again.
That recreational brawl is just one of many instances of Luke taking a beating. His recklessness extends to his own well-being, and despite his charm and apparent easygoing nature, he has a constant death wish. It’s not just when he insists Dragline continue wailing on him but so too when he refuses to take shelter from lightning in a rainstorm. He yells up at the sky for God to kill him then and there and looks disappointed when he doesn’t.
In one of many episodic scenes over the course of the first half of the film, Luke will accept a bet that he can’t eat fifty raw eggs. Soon the whole prison (when I say whole I mean about thirty people, if that) gets in on the wager, and Luke looks to be near death by the time he succeeds, all while the inmates cheer and yell above him. Moments later they vanish, content or frustrated by the bet while Luke lies on the table, one leg over the other and his arms splayed wide like Jesus on the cross.
He’s a sacrificial figure and soon assumes mythological status. Whether he’s taking a beating or attracting the inmates’ wish fulfillment, Luke becomes a sacrificial lamb for their entertainment. He is the thing they hold onto while they’re stuck inside, looking for anything and anyone to help them endure their cruel fate, no matter if it’s deserved.
The other inmates are more like kids in a summer camp than convicts. We don’t know what they’ve done to get there, and we only get to know them in the context of this camp-like prison, where the guards and warden are representations of all that is evil and unfair in the world. They exist underneath this evil, cursed to do backbreaking labor, and in that simplicity they seem to us to be quite nice people. Because of the hermetically sealed nature of this world, they become no different than you or I, in the context of the world at large. In other words they are to this movie’s universe what we are to our own.
When they then attach all of their hopes and concerns to Luke, it feels no different than any of us doing the same to a celebrity. These inmates build up Luke as a folk hero once he demands their respect by taking a beating, winning a card game and eating 50 eggs. From that point on they begin to idolize him, particularly as he begins his succession of escape attempts. They root for him from afar, not because they understand him as a person or even care about him but because his success means something. It gives them something to hold onto, says something about their own chances, no matter how small. Luke’s escape attempts, even when they don’t work, speak to his undeniable spirit, and that is enough to comfort the inmates, to know that they haven’t lost everything.
That being said, when Luke is caught and punished for the third time, he finally appears to break, cowering to the prison guards and doing their bidding like a well-trained dog. Understandably, though still frustratingly, the other inmates begin to loathe him. He was punished for their entertainment, on some level, and now he’s being punished by them for trying to avoid being punished.
What’s not so surprising is that this is just the latest in Luke’s efforts to break free. He will steal a car, with Dragline hopping along, and his escape raises the morale of the inmates who thought he had betrayed them.
From there things do and don’t work out, in ways both surprising and predictable. In the end Luke will find himself cemented as a folk hero, one the inmates will talk about for years while they work the chain gang, presumably until they die. Whether in person or spirit, Luke was the sacrifice, the person to which they offloaded their fears and hopes, because in prison both are too painful to hold dear.*
*I assume. It sounded nice to write.
Up Next: Le Samourai (1967), Night Moves (1975), Crumb (1994)