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No. 36: “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

“Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.” ~~Luke Jackson

Everybody wants to talk about how cool Paul Newman’s Luke Jackson is in “Cool Hand Luke.” And why not? Whether he’s meeting the business end of prison clan boss Dragline’s (George Kennedy) fist or crammed in The Box sweating off a sarcastic remark to Captain (Strother Martin), he scarcely blinks an eye. If it weren’t for the Georgia heat, Luke might not even sweat. He’s the picture of unflappability, a regular nonconformist. People think this makes him a hero. However, it’s the moments he loses that cool that tattle on his nature — Luke doesn’t want to be a hero, and he silently hates the prisoners who see him that way. He is nobody’s personal Jesus.

This is the key to why Luke Jackson holds the no. 30 spot in AFI’s 100 Years … 100 Heroes and Villains list: He is a true loner; he abides his own moral code and no one else’s. He does what he wants when he wants. He does not believe anyone has the right to make him do anything. He keeps to himself and never lets anyone closer than arm’s length, not even his mother (Jo Van Fleet). The way Newman plays him, Luke Jackson is a rebel not only because his will can’t be broken but because he doesn’t care what others think of him. Such is the mark of real-deal renegades, for these are the types who refuse to give in to society’s demands for reasons (we assume they’re noble) that they don’t tell us. His individuality is remarkable; it also means that Luke, on some level, is unknowable. He’s serene because no one gets past the surface level. But does that make him enviable or pitiable?

This is the dilemma that Stuart Rosenberg’s “Cool Hand Luke” poses, and Newman’s performance doesn’t acknowledge the question or answer it. Jackson, after a drunken run-in with some parking meters, wins a stint in a Georgia prison camp. The monstrous Captain (played by Strother Martin, all poison and wit) notes the new prisoner’s war-hero status — that becomes his pre-“Cool Hand Luke” nickname — and dislikes his smirking attitude. Luke’s fellow inmates, particularly ringleader Dragline (Kennedy finds vulnerability in this tough guy), don’t cotton to him either, as he couldn’t care less about the prison’s hierarchy. He keeps to himself, though eventuall Luke starts to let his inmates know about him what he wants them to know and becomes their symbol of hope.

There are two scenes that demonstrate this best: his fight with Dragline and the oft-discussed egg eating scene, famous for Newman’s Christ-like pose on the barracks table. Luke doesn’t stand a chance against Dragline, yet he gets up every time the man hits him — to the dismay of the inmates, who implore him: “Just stay down!” Luke wordlessly refuses and in the process wins their respect. Later, he vows he can eat 50 eggs in an hour and manages, to everyone’s amazement, to do it. This time around, Luke wins the prisoners’ awe and elevates himself to the level of messianic figure and a martyr of sorts (Dragline alternately calls him “a natural-born world-shaker” and a “crazy handful of nothin'”). The “wild, beautiful thing” also escapes twice and is recaptured no worse for the wear. For most of his time onscreen, Newman looks so effortlessly cool that we almost worship him even if we don’t like him. Maybe we shouldn’t, and here’s why: Recall Luke’s visit with his dying mother Arletta. She understands he’s never “belonged” to anyone. When she begins coughing, observe Newman pick up the glass of water and start to hand it to her, then pull back, then go in again. He does what convention calls for, but he’s shaky, uncertain, almost like he’s opening himself up too much. In those impossibly blue eyes, the fear of such a risk is plain.

In retrospect, this scene is where the film’s infamous line (“failure to communicate”) takes on new meaning. Luke is a cool customer, no doubt, but he’s so self-possessed and removed it’s as if he speaks a language only he understands. Thus, he’s as much a tragic figure as he is a hero.