Cool Hand Luke, 1967.
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J. D. Cannon, Robert Drivas, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, and Jo Van Fleet.
Warner Bros. continues its centennial celebration with a beautiful new 4K Ultra HD release of Cool Hand Luke, a Paul Newman film that has one of the most-quoted lines in cinema history. (“What we’ve got here … is failure to communicate.”) It’s a bummer that the extras, which were ported over from the 2008 Blu-ray and DVD editions, are so slight, but new bonus features for classic films seem to be few and far between these days.
As someone who grew up struggling to assert himself (something that still isn’t easy for me), I’ve always admired people who are willing to push back on authority, regardless of the consequences and even regardless of whether the outside world will know what they did.
One of the ultimate versions of that, of course, involves the various resistance movements in Europe during World War II, but I can even admire a character like Paul Newman’s Lucas “Luke” Jackson, dubbed “Cool Hand” because of his ability to bluff during poker. Thus I enjoyed the opportunity to revisit that iconic character thanks to Warner Bros.’ new 4K Ultra HD release of the film.
Newman’s character is a World War II veteran arrested for drunkenly cutting off the heads of parking meters one night. He’s sentenced to a chain gang prison camp run by a ruthless warden known as “The Captain,” played by Strother Martin. Morgan Woodward is The Captain’s right-hand man, a quiet rifleman called Godfrey and known as “the man with no eyes” because of his affinity for wearing mirrored sunglasses.
Upon arrival, Luke refuses to conform to the prisoners’ pecking order, challenging their leader, Dragline (George Kennedy), who beats him in a boxing match but respects his tenacity. Luke gains the other prisoners’ admiration too, especially as he challenges Godfrey and escapes twice, only to be sent back to prison each time. Will Luke continue to push back on the prison’s authority, or will he eventually allow it to subdue him?
Cool Hand Luke looks beautiful in 4K, particularly in the way it renders the details of the characters’ faces. This film has a relatively simple story, with some Christ imagery thrown in for good measure, and the color palette is one full of blues, greens, and various earth tones, but the real tension and drama lies in the characters’ expressions. Even Godfrey’s mirrored sunglasses communicate bits of his character as we view his surroundings reflected in them — in particular, we see how other characters react to the mostly non-verbal way he menaces them.
I also own this film on DVD but missed out on the 2008 Blu-ray. My understanding is that this 4K print is vastly improved over the Blu-ray’s image quality, although that restoration work wasn’t applied to the accompanying Blu-ray, which is identical to the 2008 edition. That’s a bit of a bummer. Warner Bros. also tossed in a code for a digital copy of the film.
You’ll find one commentary track for the film on both discs. It features Eric Lax, who wrote a Newman biography and mostly centers his discussion on the actor’s performance in the film. However, he does touch on Cool Hand Luke’s themes as well as its religious imagery. It’s a solid discussion, even if it does seem to favor Newman over the rest of the cast (not a surprise, of course) and it sometimes devolves into Lax simply describing what’s on the screen.
There are, unfortunately, only two other extras, both of which are found on the Blu-ray platter: the film’s trailer and A Natural Born World Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke, a 28-minute making-of that covers the basics with comments from Lax, director Stuart Rosenberg, author Donn Pearce (he and Frank Pierson, also interviewed here, wrote the screenplay based on his novel), and various members of the cast and crew.
It’s a slight documentary, but it’s better than nothing, especially for fans of the film. It and the other extras were found on the 2008 Blu-ray and DVD discs. I realize many of the principal folks involved in Cool Hand Luke are gone, including Newman, but it’s a shame that the studio didn’t commission a more thorough documentary in the late 90s or early 2000s.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★