Cool Hand Luke (1967) may not be the greatest prison film ever made, but it surely must be the coolest.
Paul Newman is Luke, the decorated veteran who turns small-time hood one inebriated evening and ends up sentenced to a chain gang in sweltering Southern prison, a basically a bare patch of dirt with a bunkhouse surrounded by a chain link fence. Between the back-breaking road work with picks and shovels by day and the boredom back at the prison broken by tall tales and meaningless contests, Luke evolves from easy-going eccentric to non-conformist hero, a man who refuses to bend in the face of authority.
There’s more than a bit of Christ allegory in the imagery but it’s the character of the scruffy prisoners in the impoverished prison, where the guards try to sap the will of their charges in the grind of the chain gang, and the resilience of Newman’s grinning non-conformist, who can’t win but will never stop fighting, that gives the film its juice. You can almost feel the oppressive heat emanate from Conrad Hall’s spare, searing cinematography.
George Kennedy costars as the prison yard boss who takes on the upstart Luke in a boxing match and turns from rival the respectful partner. J.D. Cannon. Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, and Richard Davalos are among the fellow inmates, Jo Van Fleet has a memorable one-scene appearance, and Strother Martin is the smiling devil of a warden who utters the film’s immortal line: “What we have here is… failure to communicate.” Stuart Rosenberg directs from a screenplay by Donn Pearce, author of the original novel, and Frank Pierson.
It was nominated for four Academy Awards (including a best actor nod for Newman) and Kennedy took home the statuette for best supporting actor statuette. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2005.
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Cool Hand Luke [Blu-ray]
Cool Hand Luke [4K UHD+Blu-ray]
Cool Hand Luke [DVD]
The Blu-ray and DVD special editions feature commentary by Newman biographer Eric Lax and the 28-minute featurette “Natural Born World Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke” featuring the director, the screenwriters, and many of the performers.