“You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of them… rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in?”
“Cool Hand Luke” (1967) resonated at the time it came out because of the anti-establishment malaise that the US was experiencing then, and a central character who was unwilling to compromise. I’ve seen it many times during my life and no matter my age or circumstance, I always find myself identifying with Luke – or maybe is the fact that I wish I had some of his qualities – the stubbornness and perseverance. He does seem to have more pluck than brains, a fact that I find enviable. Sometimes, overthinking things, like I do, it’s not the best thing. Not surprisingly, two days ago when I sat down to immerse myself once again in his journey, it got me thinking about the road we’ve been on and how the positivity of the beginning of 2021 was so quickly deflated. What would Luke do right now? Well, I think about the scene when he’s losing that brawl with big Dragline and he refuses to give up the fight. “Stay down. You’re beat,” Dragline yells. Luke just keeps on getting up and taking the punches.
It’s such a well-made film. The script alone is so quotable. I chuckle every time I encounter someone who has never seen the film quoting it with the line “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” It is based on Donn Pearce’s experiences in a Southern Florida corrections facility which he turned into a novel; the adaptation is by him with famous screenwriter Frank Pierson. They create a Christ-like figure – in Luke – a symbol of indomitability – and the narrative does have a clear stages-of-the cross pattern to it – including a Judas-like betrayal. The dialogue I quote at the top is from a moment at a church where Luke rails at the old man above which rings like the garden of Gethsemane. “It’s beginning to get to me,” he questions – the camera looking down on him. What do ya got in mind for me? What do I do now?” If you think I’m taking things too far, watch the scene where Luke bets his inmates he can eat 50 eggs. After he’s done, he lies on the table like on a cross – his arms extended and his feet crossed – and the last shot of the film the aerial shot pulls away to reveal a crossroads – and a symbol clearly on the ground. The fact that the inscrutable Luke and his situation is intended to be a parable is what has made it so relatable throughout the years.
And that smile. Could any other actor have made this material work as well as it does? I wouldn’t call it a smile – I’d say it’s the most appealing smirk. I’ve never been attracted to beautiful looking men, but Paul Newman has a way to make his good looks seem like they’re something he doesn’t want – and wants to hand them to you. His refusal to follow rules and bend down to the system make both Luke and the actor very alluring. “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” he says. Add that extra testosterone around him from the likes of George Kennedy (Oscar Best Supporting Actor,) and up-and-coming talent like Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Anthony Zerbe – and you’ve got yourself a cool gang of non-conformists. Jo Van Fleet – the only female in the cast – makes the most heartbreaking appearance in the role of Luke’s mother – who’s dying and knows this is the last time he will ever see him. Her illness forces her to remain in the back of a pick-up truck lying on a mattress – chain smoking, and a gauze-like fabric shielding her from the sun. “Why, we always thought you was strong enough to carry it. Was we wrong?” she ponders. Strother Martin plays the warden – Captain – with villainous gentility. He’s the one who utters the famous line.
The temperature is hot. I remember a “Cheers” episode in which they discussed the sweatiest movie ever, and they cited “Cool Hand Luke.” The brilliant camera and light man Conrad L. Hall’s photography is painter-like. He makes you feel the southern heat – with the dusty yellows and bright blue hues. Like Luke, he will break some rules, like pointing the camera directly into the sun to emphasize the scorch and will also allow the rays to bounce off the lens, creating flares. In somebody else’s hands such maneuvers would come across as mistakes, but here it makes the unbearable blaze materialize.
Lalo Schifrin did the score. You may be familiar with his work for “Mission Impossible.” The theme he created for the famous tar sequence will also be recognizable to you. It was used for the Eyewitness News broadcasts for many years. Its staccato has a propulsive feeling – a fast heartbeat – the excitement of being alive, of feeling cool and defiant against the incertitude of life. It urges you to carry on.
Luke: “Oh come on. Stop beating it. Get out there yourself. Stop feeding off me! Get out of here. Can’t breathe give me some air.”
Available to stream on Netflix and WatchTCM and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and DIRECTV
Screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson
Based on the novel by Donn Pearce
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J. D. Cannon, Robert Drivas, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin and Jo Van Fleet
Bringing “Cool Hand Luke” to the Screen
Donn Pearce had a life that clearly influenced his novel “Cool Hand Luke.” A dropout at 15, he joined the army a year later (1944) by lying about his age, but chafing under authority, he soon went AWOL. He was court-martialed and sentenced to 30 days in the stockade, but his time was commuted in favor of sending him into combat. He sent a desperate letter to his mother, who informed the Army he was underage, and he was discharged. At 17, he joined the Merchant Marine and landed in Paris, where he got involved in the black market. Busted by military police, he was sent to a French prison but escaped, first through Italy then to Canada and eventually back into the States. He partnered with an older man in safecracking and burglary and was arrested in Tampa, Florida, in 1949. At only 20, he was sentenced to five years hard labor on a chain gang he described as “a chamber of horrors.” While incarcerated, he met another inmate who had graduated from college; the man became his mentor and encouraged Pearce to write. After two years, he was released, returned to the Merchant Marine, and began writing on long voyages. Recuperating from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1959, he wrote a book about his experiences on the chain gang. Finally published in 1965, the novel received good reviews but didn’t sell well. The New York Times called “Cool Hand Luke” “an impressive novel” and Publisher’s Weekly praised Pearce’s “extraordinary gift for rhythmic prose, tragic drama, and realism made larger than life.”
Pearce’s main character was an amalgam of his own experiences and those of a safecracker he knew, Donald Graham Garrison. In the course of his career, Garrison stole between $4 and $5 million dollars. Stuart Rosenberg had been working successfully in television since 1968, except for his one rather obscure theatrical feature, a Christian-themed drama called Question 7 (1961). Rosenberg discovered Pearce’s book and took it to Jalem, Jack Lemmon’s production company, hoping to make a feature film of it. Jalem bought the film rights and hired Pearce to take a first pass at a screenplay draft, with the notion of possibly starring Lemmon himself. According to Lemmon’s son Chris in a recent radio interview, Lemmon read the script and decided he’d be wrong for the part. Producer Gordon Carroll wanted character actor Telly Savalas, but he was in Europe making “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and unavailable. Pearce’s inexperience with screenwriting was soon apparent, so Jalem hired Frank Pierson, whose recent successes included scripts for “Cat Ballou” (1965), to complete the script. Paul Newman and Steve McQueen had just passed on playing the two killers in the film version of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” (1967). Around that time, Newman became aware that the “Cool Hand Luke” project was in the works and asked to be cast even before reading the screenplay. “It’s one of the few roles I’ve committed myself to on the basis of the original book, without seeing a script. It would have worked no matter how many mistakes were made.” As soon as he was hired, Newman plunged into research, spending time in West Virginia talking to locals, recording their accents, asking their opinions on a range of subjects. His presence in the town of Huntington caused quite a stir. Only a nun teaching at a local high school was unimpressed, telling him upon their introduction, “It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Newman. What do you do for a living?” (tcm.com)
About Cinematographer Conrad L. Hall
Born in Tahiti in 1926, Hall was the son of James Norman Hall, co-author of the books “Mutiny on the Bounty and The Hurricane” (both filmed more than once). He attended the University of Southern California with the intention of taking up journalism, but, after showing little aptitude in creative writing classes, he looked for another subject…he told The Los Angeles Times that he did so by flipping through the university’s course catalogue: “It started with A for astronomy, B for biology and C for cinema. I thought, “Cinema? You mean like movies? Rubbing shoulders with stars? Making all that money?” For all the wrong reasons, I signed up, and then had a love affair with the visual language and learned to tell stories like my dad.” One of Hall’s teachers at USC was the Yugoslavian montage expert Slavko Vorkapich. After Hall’s short film “Sea Theme” won first prize for photography in a USC amateur contest, he formed a small production company, Canyon Films, with some fellow students, and, after adapting a short story “My Brother Down There” into a screenplay, they raised money to make a movie version. Hall said: “When it came time to decide who would do what, we all wanted to be the director. We couldn’t do it by committee, of course. So we thought about what other jobs would need to be done to make the movie: producer, editor, cinematographer. We wrote them all down and put them in a hat. I happened to draw “cinematographer” . . . Eventually I learned what a great opportunity it is to be able to tell a story visually. I’ve found that I can be a storyteller, like my father, by using visuals and not be in competition with him.” Canyon Films proved short-lived, and Hall then worked in several capacities in the industry, including photography, editing and production, contributing to commercials, industrial films and features, including providing 16mm footage for Disney’s acclaimed “True-Life Adventure,” “The Living Desert” (1953). He was given his first screen credit as one of three photographers on a low-budget black-and-white thriller, “Edge of Fury” (1958), but he continued to serve as camera assistant and camera operator with such noted cinematographers as Ted McCord, Ernest Haller, Floyd Crosby and Hal Mohr.
For Robert Surtees, he was camera operator on the 1962 version of “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando. Also in 1962, he worked with Ted McCord on the television series “Stoney Burke” for the producer Leslie Stevens. Stevens admired Hall’s work, and retained him to photograph episodes of the science- fiction series “The Outer Limits” (1963-65), after which Hall was the cinematographer on Stevens’s feature film about the occult “Incubus” (1966). Starring William Shatner, it was notable for having its dialogue spoken entirely in “Esperanto” (a would-be universal language developed in 1887) and though considered stilted and pretentious at the time the film now has a cult following. One of the first major films on which Hall received sole credit was “Morituri” (1965) starring Marlon Brando as an anti-Nazi German. Directed by Bernhard Wicki, a German director working for the first time in Hollywood, the black-and-white film was poorly received, with only the cast (Yul Brynner and Trevor Howard co-starred) and Hall’s strikingly vivid camerawork winning praise. The film won Hall his first Oscar nomination. Another black-and-white film lauded for Hall’s photography was Richard Brooks’s true crime story “In Cold Blood” (1967), based on Truman Capote’s book about two psychopathic killers. “I started off my career in a sort of naturalistic style, as opposed to an operatic style,” said Hall, “and I’ve refined that over the years to fit the stories.” Hall preferred to work in black-and-white, but by the mid-Sixties most of Hollywood’s films were being made in colour, and Hall’s work on “Harper” (1966), “The Professionals” (1966) and “Cool Hand Luke” displayed his mastery of the form. Disliking the artificial style of Hollywood lighting, he favoured a naturalistic or impressionist approach. His superb, dream-like rendering of the Old West in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” won him the Academy Award, and he also won the film’s leading lady Katharine Ross, to whom he was married from 1969 to 1975. Able to be selective in his assignments, he liked to work on projects about “moral and ethical dilemmas”. “I look for stories about humanity,” he said, about choices a person has to make. “I don’t like thrillers. They’re not made about the human condition. They exist to torture you. I’d rather do something like ‘Day of the Locust’ about the losers who don’t make it in film, but make their lives worthwhile by pretending.”
After shooting “Marathon Man” (1976) Hall spent a decade running a production company making commercials with his fellow photographer Haskell Wexler, though he shot Bette Midler’s concert scenes for “The Rose” (1979). He returned to feature-film making with the thriller “Black Widow” (1987), and subsequent films included “Love Affair” (1994) and “A Civil Action” (1998). Hall was to receive nine Oscar nominations during his 50-year career (and may well receive another for Road to Perdition). He won his second award for his surreal evocation of the world of a dysfunctional family in “American Beauty.” “This was Sam Mendes’s first film,” he said, but it never felt like his first film. He’s actually a kind of control freak. I mean that in a good way. It’s one thing to be directing. It’s another to be directing and to have a vision and communicate that. Sam has vision. I helped contribute to that vision and to that wonderful screenplay. The dream-like shot of cascading rose petals featured in the film has already become an iconic image of Nineties cinema, but Hall confessed to some initial trepidation with the project. “I kept asking Sam, ‘How are we going to light these people? They’re all so unlikeable.’ ” He was also perturbed to discover how much was cut from the film in its final editing. Though he came around to the final version (“When he showed it to me on the big screen, it was a revelation”) Hall hoped that some of the cut material would be put back for the film’s DVD release. In 1994 Hall, whose son, Conrad W. Hall, took up the same profession and shot “The Panic Room” (2002), received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematography. “Every film that he worked on was something beautiful to the eye, and very imaginative,” said Zanuck. “Connie was not known for his speed, but neither was Rembrandt. He was known for incredible genius.” (independent.co.uk)
About Composer Lalo Schifrin
An Oscar- and Emmy-nominated film and television composer, classical composer, and acclaimed jazz pianist, Lalo Schifrin emerged as a big-band leader in the mid-’50s, collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Xavier Cugat before beginning to score films in the mid-’60s. His iconic theme to TV’s “Mission: Impossible” was first broadcast in 1966. Following in the footsteps of John Barry and Monty Norman’s “James Bond Theme,” its orchestral jazz instrumentation (including prevalent flutes, brass, piano, bongos, and jazz drums) and adrenalized staccato, syncopated rhythms helped to define spy music for decades to follow. Much like contemporaries Michel Legrand, Henry Mancini, and André Previn, while he wrote in a variety of styles, Schifrin remained best known for his jazz-inflected scores. They also included crime films like 1968’s “Bullitt,” which set an urban scene with a large jazz ensemble that included electric guitar and electric bass, and the “Dirty Harry” franchise (1971-1988). Though more varied, the “Dirty Harry” scores maintained an antsy jazz M.O. while updating the production palette over time to include more keyboards, strings, and rock-styled drums. After his “Mission: Impossible” theme was repurposed for a big-screen reboot in the mid-’90s, Schifrin combined jazz, rock, and lush orchestral tracks in his lively soundtracks for the “Rush Hour” action franchise in the late ’90s and 2000s. Over 50 years after its introduction, his “Mission: Impossible” theme was still featured heavily in Lorne Balfe’s music for the blockbuster sixth entry in the film series, 2018’s “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.”
Born Boris Claudio Schifrin in Buenos Aires in 1932, Schifrin grew up with a father who played violin with the Teatro Colón Orchestra. When Lalo was six years old, his dad arranged for him to begin studying piano with Enrique Barenboim, father of celebrated pianist/conductor Daniel Barenboim. As a teenager, he studied piano with the former head of the Kiev Conservatory, Andreas Karalis, and harmony with composer Juan Carlos Paz. After winning a scholarship to the Paris Conservatory in the early ’50s, he studied with French composers Charles Koechlin and Olivier Messiaen. In his off hours, he played in Parisian jazz clubs, and in 1955, he represented Argentina in the Paris International Jazz Festival. After returning to Buenos Aires, he started his own 16-piece, Basie-style jazz band, the first of its kind in Argentina, and found work as a pianist and arranger. His status as a bandleader helped him meet Dizzy Gillespie in 1956, and Schifrin offered to write a suite for Gillespie. He completed the five-movement Gillespiana in 1958, the same year he became an arranger for Xavier Cugat. In 1960, Schifrin moved to New York City and joined Gillespie’s quintet, which recorded Gillespiana to much acclaim. He became Gillespie’s musical director until 1962, contributing another suite, “The New Continent,” before leaving the position to concentrate on his writing. Schifrin accepted his first film-scoring assignment in the U.S. in 1963 (“Rhino!”) and moved to Hollywood, soon finding a niche composing for both TV and the silver screen.
In the meantime, he composed works marked by his jazz-classical fusion style, including the 1963 ballet Jazz Faust and 1965’s Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts. After establishing himself on episodes of television series such as “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” Schifrin joined the music department of the spy series “Mission: Impossible.” It premiered on CBS in 1966 and featured his catchy 5/4 instrumental “Theme from Mission: Impossible,” a track that would live on in TV-music collections for decades to come. He followed it a year later with his theme to “Mannix,” around the same time he was becoming known for his jazzy scores to high-profile crime films such as “Cool Hand Luke” (1967) and “Bullitt” (1968). He earned his first Academy Award nomination for “Cool Hand Luke” and his second a year later for the D.H. Lawrence drama “The Fox.” Schifrin composed the music for the Don Siegel-directed “Coogan’s Bluff,” starring Clint Eastwood, in 1968. He reunited with the pair on 1971’s “Dirty Harry” and went on to write music for four of the five remaining films in the series, which extended through the ’80s (1976’s “The Enforcer” was composed by Jerry Fielding). During that time span, he also wrote scores for films as diverse as the 1976 war film “Voyage of the Damned” (his third Oscar nomination), Disney’s “The Cat from Outer Space” from 1978, and the 1979 horror classic “The Amityville Horror” (his fourth Oscar nomination). He received two more Academy Award nominations in the ’80s, for “The Competition” (1980) and “The Sting II” (1983). While he continued to write frequently for movies and TV, Schifrin returned some of his focus to classical works during the ’90s, a decade that saw the release of the first three in a series of orchestral jazz albums called “Jazz Meets the Symphony.” He also arranged much of the music for the first three of the Three Tenors concerts. In 1996, his “Mission: Impossible” theme reached another generation when it was repurposed for a series of films starring Tom Cruise. U2’s Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen, Jr. produced a dance version of the theme that reached the Top Ten of the singles charts in the U.S. and U.K. Still writing original material for film, beginning in 1998, Schifrin provided playful orchestral scores for the first three entries in the Rush Hour series, starring Jackie Chan. Schifrin stayed active in Hollywood in his seventies, scoring films such as the crime film “After the Sunset” and the horror movie “Abominable” (directed by his son, Ryan Schifrin), in addition to “Rush Hour 3” in the 2000s. The third, fourth, and fifth “Mission: Impossible” films saw release during the 2010s, as did the Schifrin-scored romantic comedy “Love Story” (2011) and basketball bio-pic “Sweetwater” (2016). (allmusic.com) His most recent project was the TV mini-series “Cine Chalom” in 2020.
About Director Stuart Rosenberg
Born in Brooklyn on August 11, 1927, Rosenberg studied at New York University. An apprenticeship as a television editor led to directing assignments on such series as “Naked City,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Untouchables.” He also directed three episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” including a memorable 1960 story, “I Shot an Arrow into the Air,” in which three astronauts land on a strange, forbidding planet that turns out to be Earth. In 1963 he won an Emmy for an episode of “The Defenders.” While working in television he also branched into feature films, most notably with the 1961 production “Question 7,” a drama about religious persecution in Germany, which won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. Rosenberg was browsing in an L.A. bookstore when he came across the novel “Cool Hand Luke,” by Donn Pearce. The story of a prison camp inmate who refuses to bend to authority became a 1967 film starring Paul Newman in the title role. The acclaimed drama earned a best supporting actor for co-star George Kennedy and a Directors Guild of America nomination for Rosenberg. Although he worked with Newman on three more films— “WUSA,” “Pocket Money” and “The Drowning Pool” — “Cool Hand Luke,” which coined the memorable line, “What we have here is failure to communicate,” spoken by the sadistic prison captain, played by Strother Martin, remains their most enduring collaboration. During the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s Rosenberg worked with some of the biggest stars in Hollywood—Elliott Gould in “Move,” Walter Matthau in “The Laughing Policeman,” Charles Bronson in “Love and Bullets” Faye Dunaway in “Voyage of the Damned” and Robert Redford in “Brubaker.” He enjoyed his greatest commercial success with the supernatural thriller “The Amityville Horror,” inspired by the harrowing events reported by a Long Island family after they moved into a house where several murders had taken place years before. Following “Brubaker” in 1980, Rosenberg made three more films, most notably the 1984 drama The Pope of Greenwich Village. He went on to teach directing at the American Film Institute, where his students included several future filmmakers of note, including Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream”), Todd Field (“Little Children”), Scott Silver (“The Mod Squad”), Mark Waters (“Mean Girls”) and Doug Ellin (“Entourage”). He is survived by Margot, his wife of more than 50 years, and a son, Benjamin, a film editor. (emmys.com)