Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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While I might not consider it one of the finest films ever produced, Cool Hand Luke features one of the most mythic characters ever conceived for the movies. He’s one of those figures who can seemingly only exist on celluloid. Luke Jackson comes out of a certain turbulent period in American history even as his story remains indelibly timeless.

Paul Newman realized some greats throughout the 1960s from Fast Eddie Felson to Hud and then Butch Cassidy. However, this monumental role is one of his most iconic regardless of all the others that came before and proceeded it. Newman stretches himself to the edge of the frame and then some. It’s difficult to even begin to consider who else might have managed the feat if not him — furnishing both a constant resiliency and the trademark gleam in his eye.

It’s that placid demeanor and vaguely smug attitude which is above all prepossessing. A near relentless self-subjection to suffering and malevolence follows and for the most ridiculously absurd offense. Luke was bored and so he went about town slicing the tops off parking meters while inebriated. For that, he’s given a two-year sentence on a chain gang. For that, he willingly takes on the ills, disdain, and wrath of a whole community of people without hardly batting an eye.

It begins when the “fresh meat” comes to town. They’re jeered by the veterans led by the hulking southern boy Dragline (George Kennedy) and filled out like all the quality prison movies with a bevy of talented character actors. Some fairly prominent names including Dennis Hopper and Richard Davalos as well character parts for Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, etc.

The new faces quiver in this foreign environment, among them Ralph Waite and Harry Dean Stanton. Meanwhile, Luke Jackson sports a stellar war record though he left the military with the same rank he had going in. He was just passing time.

There’s a mild disinterest, a silent bravado, and subtle anti-establishment slant to him. He doesn’t flaunt it necessarily but it does come out. The guards and the camp’s proprietor (Strother Martin) are wary of him and the inmates don’t believe he’ll ever come to learn their pecking order.

That’s what’s so appealing about the Luke character. He could care less what other people think. He never has to prove himself. He just does what he wants and as a result, makes himself an idol of the entire chain gang without ever trying to do so.

The script, penned by the story’s original author Donn Pearce as well as Frank Pierson, is adept at creating individual moments and bits of dialogue that are in themselves so distinctive, showcasing a remarkable ability to stand on their own merit. Even now over 50 years later.

“The Night in the Box” monologue might have its imitators but it has no equal, setting up the monotonous drudgery that makes camp life, backbreaking and yet somehow strangely comforting to some men. Strother Martin famously sums up his relationship with the troublesome prisoner as a “failure to communicate” while in another sequence the girl (Joy Harmon) saucily washes her car, tantalizing all the sex-crazed men on the job.

Dragline and Luke have a boxing bout that cements the new man’s reputation as well as a budding friendship with the camp’s resident top dog. He bluffs his way through poker games to earn his iconic nickname, “Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand” Luke grins almost matter-of-factly. Everyone else howls with delight at his exploits.

Next, overtaken by a surge of giddy energy he spurs on his compatriots turning their assignment of tarring a road into a game that captures the imagination of all involved. They are taken by his spirit which never seems to sour. It’s the same temperament that will lead him to eat 50 eggs in under an hour just for the heck of it. Whether he meant to or not the whole cohort feeds off of him, even as some spurn his attempts at individuality — most gravitate toward the man. From thenceforward, outstretched on a table like a Crucifix he is cast as their Christ-like figure.

A flurry of escape attempts is spawned by the news that his mother has died. The outcome was all but inevitable. Still, that doesn’t make it sting less. The conversation shared between the two of them earlier is only one minor scene of dialogue, and yet together Newman and Joan Van Fleet make something impactful out of it. Thus, when Arletty dies, off camera, it has critical implications for the man. For once, he shows some type of emotion; he cares about something.

Luke can be found strumming away at a banjo singing “Plastic Jesus.” Not being able to get away for the funeral he resolves to sing her a dirge of his own. The rest of the film is backed by Lalo Schrifrin’s score laced with a down-home country meandering melody contributed to by an arrangement of guitars, banjos, and harmonicas with more traditional string and brass sections. It’s the soundtrack of Luke’s exploits as he gets some jackrabbit in his blood and looks to jump the coop.

His Fourth of July escape runs the hounds ragged or else he’s “shaking the bush” to take a leak only to scramble off into the underbrush. He’s away long enough to even send the boys a souvenir from the outside featuring him gussied up with two bodacious gals. His smile lights up the page and the picture gives them something to keep their blood pumping; it’s really something to live for.

But multiple times he is brought back to confinement and “the box.” The bosses, having just about enough of his impertinence, subject him to neverending ditch digging and refilling after long days of work. They’re not about to let him forget he’s a prisoner. While his inmates helplessly watch him get worked to death in the camp yard, they sing “Ain’t No Grave” in solidarity with him. Throughout Stanton can be heard belting out Gospel spirituals accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Director Stuart Rosenberg in his first movie after a career in TV at least ably conveys the pervasively sweaty grime of the day-to-day in such a world. Nothing is clean. Dirt clings to everyone and everything. It permeates every inch of the screen.

However, some of his visual choices come off rather clunky in execution. “The Man With No Eyes” constantly has his reflective sunglasses put on display as metaphor and the choice to end the picture in a clip show gives one last upbeat note but undermines what could have been an uncompromising ending.

Contrast Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1976) and on an external level, you have nominally similar dramas about a group rallying around one man to stick it to the institution. But there is little comparison between Randle McMurphy and Luke beyond that point just as the endings choose their own alternative resolutions.

As it is, Luke is smiling to the end of his days and Dragline canonizes him as a saint for all posterity. He becomes the vehicle for all their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. He is their Savior but he’s a fallible Christ-figure — never perfect and he never can be perfect — but they put there hope in him nonetheless. After all, he is a natural world shaker to the very last grin.

However, In his final hour, Luke can be found talking to The Man Upstairs in an abandoned church building. It is his version of Gethsemane:

“It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?”

Surely the implications are twofold. He maintained a failure to communicate with his fellow man as a perennial outsider turned-savior but the issue extended to his relationship with God too. He is all but alone. He’s an outsider without ever trying to be. That’s simply his God-given temperament. But that can be a wearisome existence and we cannot smile at Cool Hand Luke‘s ending without harboring a residual sense of pessimism as well.

5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

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It’s easy to yearn for the days where they made stylish, amusing films like Charade which were equal parts charm, class, and wit all stirred together to perfection. Those were the days when two stars as beloved as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn could carry a picture no questions asked because people would turn out to see them no matter the story. And it’s true, though they were never in another picture together, there’s a wonderful chemistry that builds between them and never ceases from the outset of this lithe thriller.

From their first exchange up until their last, it’s hard not to delight in their every interaction, every word, every smirk. There’s a consistent playful patter bubbling up that’s at times suggestive but never loses its sensibilities. There’s a constant twinkle in the eyes of our stars interrupted every now and again by brief moments of sheer terror. Hepburn playing her elegant self but perpetually frantic while Grant exudes his general charisma that sees him through peril as well as innumerable comic situations (ie. an awkward game of pass the orange as well as showers with his clothes on).

Of course, it hardly hurts a bit that Charade has a surprisingly tense plot that while a little flimsy in some areas still manages to have a plethora of twists, turns, and about-faces to come off generally befuddling like many of the most enjoyable thrillers out there.

It all begins with a body getting tossed from a passing train. Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is on a vacation on a snowy mountaintop away from her husband with a wistful sense that her marriage is done for. Little does she know how right she is. She returns to her residence in Paris only to find all her belongings gone and her husband dead. The police believe it has to do with a missing $250,000 that Lampert was purported to have absconded with during the war. Their guess is that one of his old platoon mates let him have it so they could get the payload for themselves. All of this is news to Regie who was painfully ignorant of her husband’s affairs. And now with it all dropped in her lap, she doesn’t quite know what to think.

The police inspector (Jacques Marin) on one side questioning her and the Federal Agent Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau) frightening her out of her mind. The only real bright spot is her newest acquaintance Peter Joshua (Grant) and she’s bent on chasing after him before the people chasing after her catch up. Because life, even a spy life, is better with a companion.

Forget the fact that this film has often been attributed to Hitchcock. This is Stanley Donen’s creation and if nothing else it exhibits his admiration for the Master as well as his adaptability taking his own skills as a comedic and romantic director and adding a touch of the thriller to the mix.

He makes it work very well and paired with the typically jazzy score of Henry Mancini, a continually entertaining script by Peter Stone, and generally immaculate color cinematography by Charles Lang, Donen can’t miss.  If it’s not the greatest film if only for the very fact that it doesn’t take itself all that seriously, Charade uses that very quality to its advantage with plentiful splashes of fun and romance.

Audrey Hepburn robed as per usual in iconic creations by Givenchy looks to play the huntress on the prowl. While on his own admission Cary Grant takes the passive role as the pleasant older gentlemen who nevertheless wears many hats and many names. Though Hepburn and Grant undoubtedly take center stage and rightfully so,  that’s not to discount quality character actors like Walter Matthau, George Kennedy, and James Coburn filling in as the deceased Charles Lampert’s old war comrades each carrying a bit of a vendetta.

The surprisingly tense conclusion sweeps through the Parisian streets, subway stations, colonnades, and finally an abandoned theater. But, above all, Charade does well to neutralize its more intense or even grisly moments (at least by 60s standards) with its persistent charm. The type of charm that make those films of old so endearing much like the actors who starred in them.

It’s as if in the twilight years of the studio system some of the greatest names coalesced to gift the world another gem for the road. There certainly were signs of change with wistful mentions of Gene Kelly’s early classic An American in Paris or a passing remark about stamps commemorating Princess Grace’s coronation (which took her away from a brilliant film career). At 59 Cary Grant was aging gracefully but still near the end of his career with only two more pictures to follow. And Audrey Hepburn herself would finish out the 1960s with several notable classics and then she would all but conclude her illustrious career for good.With Stanley Donen still with us, he truly acts as one of the last strands connecting this generation with those Golden Years of Hollywood.

However, the most significant reality is that this film came out in December of 1963, a mere month after John F. Kennedy was assassinated near the Book Depository in Dallas Texas. That singular event more than any other was emblematic of the change that would surge through society and the world at large. That is the world that Charade was born into.

So if you were to use the unforgivable cliche at this point that they “just don’t make movies like they used to,” you probably would be correct because that’s close to the truth. Films like Charade are all but gone and when you actually consider the joy of watching Hepburn and Grant together, it really is a terrible shame, though it simply seems a testament to the rolling tides of change.

Still, there’s something truly magical that occurs when they’re together. They were an altogether different breed of star. Maybe it’s the way they carry themselves, dress, or speak. Maybe it’s the way they look at each other. Maybe it’s their quips. Maybe it’s something else entirely. But they’re two of the greatest we’ll ever know for the simple fact that they were so beloved. They made us love them and as a result, we buy into this entire film. We bought into their charade and enjoyed every last minute of it.

4/5 Stars

The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988)

7e021-the_naked_gun_posterWhen you hear the names Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker (Airplane!, Top Secret) you automatically know there are boatloads of zany sight gags, puns and parodies to be had. Although weaker than the previous films, thanks to another bang up job by Leslie Nielsen, this police drama parody is still a lot of fun.

After single handedly beating up on the United States biggest enemies, Lieutenant Frank Drebin (Nielsen) returns to the L.A. precinct to investigate the case of a heroin ring and the brutal injury of his colleague Nordberg (O.J. Simpson). Drebin gets the obligatory briefing from his superior (George Kennedy) and the necessary gadgets for the mission. The case brings our hero in contact with the villainous Vincent Ludwig (Richardo Montalban) as well as his alluring assistant (Priscilla Presley). Drebin and Ms. Spencer’s relationship soon becomes sappily romantic (cue I’m Into Something Good) with hot dogs, movies and jaunts on the beach.

The rest of the case involves car chases, fires, incriminating documents, the arrival of the Queen and of course California Angels Baseball. That’s right. The Queen is to be assassinated and what better location than a baseball game? It is Drebin’s responsibility to stop the attempt at all costs and he makes quite a mess of the game (like he did with everything else), but he does get the job done. His methods are far from orthodox to be sure but he gets the girl and the bad guy pays for his misdeeds. Nordberg certainly is lucky to have such a loyal partner, maybe.

This comic trio pushes the wackiness as far as it can possibly go, oftentimes with mock seriousness and overdone tropes that get made fun of. For instance Drebin gives us voice-over narration, Spencer is very much a femme fatale at first and the story is your not so typical procedural format. Unexpected cameos by Weird Al, Jay Johnstone, Reggie Jackson and a whole host of professional announcers are certainly memorable. Furthermore the uproarious baseball sequences with “I Love L.A.” playing were certainly a hit.  This is a comedy classic from the files of the police squad and I cannot help but enjoy it.

3.5/5 Stars

The Sons of Katie Elder (1965)

eb358-sons_of_katie_elder_1965Although John Wayne was old enough to play the father, the dynamic between the sons of Katie Elder is a fun one, besides the fact that John Wayne and Dean Martin could never in a million years be brothers.

Otherwise this is a relatively typical western with a menacing bad guy who has control of the small western town facing the brothers who are in the right. However, the town ultimately turns against them thanks to corruption and the stupid bravado of an inexperienced deputy. The balance is finally returned and justice is dealt, but not without some bloodshed of course.

Besides Wayne and Martin, there were some memorable turns by James Gregory, George Kennedy, Paul Fix, and a few others.

3.5/5 Stars

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

92bba-cool_hand_luke_posterIn one of his most memorable performances, Paul Newman is Luke Jackson a man put on a chain gang for cutting the heads off parking meters while drunk. Despite the weary and monotonous regiment, Luke will not be cowed and he always keeps his positive demeanor.

Originally the newcomer, Luke quickly earns the respect of everyone including Dragline (George Kennedy), whether he is boxing, eating 50 hard-boiled eggs, or bluffing his way through a card game. Even though he is never quite successful, Luke never stops trying to escape either. His numerous clever attempts lead the Captain (Strother Martin) to utter his famous words about their “failure to communicate.” After multiple escape attempts Luke gets beaten, berated, and tortured.

However, he proves that you can never destroy his spirit no matter how hard yo try and so the ending is inconsequential. So ultimately “Cool Hand Luke” is a winner and a likable one at that.

It is necessary to acknowledge this solid ensemble cast including the likes of Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Ralph Waite, and of course Joan Van Fleet. Furthermore, there is seemingly no film that better depicts the dirt, grime, heat, and humidity that comes from working in a southern chain gang. The cinematography makes even the audience uncomfortable and a shower seems all but necessary.

Although the focus is often on the indefatigable character of Luke it became evident that this is often a taxing and difficult film to watch especially in the second half. In many ways Luke is the savior of these men in the chain gang and he sacrifices a lot of himself so that they might have some hope. Thus, this film is not just about the highs but the lows as well and Paul Newman plays every moment adeptly with the coolness that Luke Jackson embodies.

5/5 Stars

Charade (1963)

Starring the romantic pair of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, with Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy, this film is considered the best “Hitchcock film” which the director did not make. While on vacation, Grant and Hepburn first meet briefly and then she returns to her home Paris. Hepburn goes there only to find out her husband, who she wanted to divorce, has been murdered. When meeting with a CIA man (Matthau), she learns that her husband and three buddies stole some money during a war but the three chums never got their shares. Upon meeting Grant again, he agrees to help Regina (Hepburn) and also says he is looking for the money. Through a series of events the three other men are all killed and everything seems to point to Grant. Hepburn runs for her life with Grant close behind and winds up meeting the CIA man. However, everything is not as it seems and after a shoot out Hepburn finally realizes the truth. Along with the thrills this movie has a nice score and a touch of playful comedy (including Grant’s many aliases including Peter Joshua, Alexander Dyle, Adam Canfield, etc.). Cary Grant was hesitant of playing opposite Hepburn since he was quite a bit older, but that is used nicely in the film as a source of even more comedy. Furthermore, Mancini’s score gives the film a 1960s spy vibe or I guess I should say agent… Hope you enjoy Stanley Donen‘s Charade.

4/5 Stars