Is Luke Jackson, the laconic iconoclast played by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, mentally ill?
It sure seems that way. He greets his misery – being arrested for damaging parking meters, being sentenced to a chain gang, being pummeled by alpha dog inmate Dragline (George Kennedy) – with the same idiot grin, as if he doesn’t fully understand how much trouble he’s in.
But then again, this is Newman – the blondeness starting to fade to gray yet still a shocking star. So we know the truth is that Luke just doesn’t give a damn. And don’t we all wish we could be so cavalier when faced with oppression in our own lives (even if it’s only at the hands of the cable company)?
As iconic as Cool Hand Luke has become – few movies have been as quoted in popular culture – this is a strange bird. Sometimes an awkward, manipulative Hollywood product – the director is journeyman Stuart Rosenberg – the picture also echoes the harsh authenticity of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” That novella, a fictionalized version of Solzhenitsyn’s own experience in a Russian labor camp, chronicled the details of systematic dehumanization. Cool Hand Luke does that too – the incessant, rhythmic swishing of the chain gang’s scythes burrows into your brain – and then adds Newman’s supernova performance. It’s a gulag melodrama, if such a thing is possible.
Newman owns every scene – he even wins over Kennedy’s loquacious brute. Only his captors, led by Strother Martin’s Captain, remain immune. When they finally break him, we’ve become so enthralled with his resilience that it’s crushing. Like Luke’s fellow inmates – who watch him come apart with a combination of pity and resentment – you die a little.
Cool Hand Luke offers a reprieve after that point, but there is no doubt that this story is headed for tragedy. Histrionics take over in the end – Luke offers an earnest prayer – and we know he’s going down. Even in Hollywood, no one this confident, this carefree, this cool could be allowed to live.