“That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang.”
Three performances stand as the purest defined enduring epitome of cool and they are all in trouble with the law in their first five minutes. James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” Elvis Presley in “Jailhouse Rock,” and Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke,” but I’m not so sure I wouldn’t put Newman for that one slice of time eternal on top of them all. Newman even manages to look unbelievably cool lying flat on his back shoveling beans into his mouth.
It’s eerie because it seems pretty clear that Dean would have wound up starring in “Cool Hand Luke” had he managed to survive his twenties. Jo Van Fleet played his mother in “East of Eden” just as she plays Luke’s here. Richard Davalos his brother in “Eden” is here, as is Dennis Hopper from “Rebel.” At least I think Hopper is. I’ve watched both numerous times and have yet to figure out which juvenile delinquent or convict he might be.
You can make an argument that this indeed is the real “Rebel Without a Cause.” The title actually fits “Cool Hand Luke” better. “Rebel” opens in brilliant technicolor on a drunken James Dean laughing drunkenly in the street. Luke opens just as textured and colorfully burned into the film with Newman drunkenly cutting down parking meters for no perceptible reason other than boredom or perhaps a little dissatisfaction with the world and his life. Dean risked his neck not to be called chicken. Newman tosses of his life away like he has a general disregard for the concept, and he does it with a cocksure mischievous grin on his face. It’s interesting to think what Dean would do with Luke, but it’s almost inconceivable to think he could have done anything better.
“Cool Hand Luke” is a prison flick. There’s nothing better for a robust existential drama than a prison flick. Wondering what it’s all for when your days are spent either working to exhaustion, trying to pass the off time, possibly even some time in the box. If you’re really lucky you might even get a Jesus parable, crucifixion poses will be made, and there’s enough time for the hottest girl washing a car all wet and sudsy scene until Denise Richards ventured in from “Wild Things.”
Newman’s Luke is a loser, but he has an indefatigable will. George Kennedy beats him to an inch of his life and he simply tells him matter of factly that he will have to literally kill him to keep him down, and you know a fight is ugly when prisoners want it stopped to save the new guy.
Lucas Jackson apparently was a war hero, won the silver and bronze star, went in a private came out a private. “I was just doing time”, he says. He’s his mother’s favorite even after he fouls up his life. She passes in to tell him she’ll be dead by the time he gets out and she doesn’t care what he does when she’s gone, and yet you can tell she adores every look she can get of his beauty and will. “We always thought you’d be strong enough to carry us,” she says “Was we wrong?” “I don’t know,” he says “things aren’t always what they seem … You know that a man has got to go his own way.” That’s as directly knowable as Newman gets. Was it a girl, the war, just life, we can only guess.
Luke starts performing his miracles and the entire camp starts feeding on his will, his inability to be beat, and therefore they needed to break him, and you know they will. Strother Martin does. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach, so you get what we had here last week which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don’t like it any more than you men.”
Luke survives his first day, he eats fifty eggs, and plays it like a hustle the whole way, he wins mythical poker hands, and pretty soon he’s got the men racing to out hustle the man, furiously trying to outlast the day tarring a road in the sun. They have to break him.
He gets angry with God. “Dying? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin’ it? Come on. You’re welcome to it, old timer. Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it. ..I’m just standin’ in the rain talkin’ to myself.” And then again a moment later his mother is dead.
He gets put in the box so he won’t run to the funeral. “Calling it your job don’t make it right Boss.” So he runs just to be ornery. He runs a hound to death. They catch him, bring him back and chain him. He runs again and sends the prisoners a picture of him in a bar with two babes. His legend grows, but eventually they track him down, and beat him just enough so he can live to return. He tries to expose himself, but no one will believe it could be true. It seems like the world is leaning on him. He begins to despise their worship. “Oh come on! Stop beating it! Get out there yourself. Stop feeding off me. Get out of here. I can’t breathe. Give me some air.”
They work him to death but he refuses to budge. “That ditch is Boss Kean’s ditch. And I told him that dirt in it’s your dirt. What’s your dirt doing in his ditch?” They make him dig his own grave while his minions watch. He breaks. He accepts their God. “You got your mind right Luke?” His disciples turn on him. “Where are you now?” he yells out enraged. He looks like he might be playing ball, when he takes off with the camp’s truck. He knows he’s beat, but they’ll have to kill him. He goes out with the same cock-eyed grin he came in with. The legend can only build in its retelling.
An amazing accomplishment by Newman as the best fight man has left in him. There’s also an Oscar winning performance by champion Foghorn Leghorn sound alike George Kennedy.
“That’s the sound of the men working on the chain gang.”