For whatever reason the new management at the Madison opened with a four-film Paul Newman festival, also showing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting and Slap Shot this opening week. Perhaps predictably, I chose the oldest film of the four. Cool Hand Luke is celebrated as a celebration of rebellion, but a closer examination reveals greater ambivalence about the hero's rebellion. In his southern prison, Luke is a reluctant Christ figure in a world without God, or at least a Christ figure who doesn't believe in God. Rosenberg acknowledges the absurdity of the concept, posing Newman in his most Christ-like attitude just after Luke has eaten 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour on a bet. Later, the idolization of Luke by his erstwhile enemy Dragline (George Kennedy in his Oscar-winning role) adds a tragicomic note to the allegory. Luke seems capable of miracles, not just in his capacity for eggs but in his inspiration of the work gang to finish a road job in record time, earning them precious extra hours of leisure. Late, he has a Gethsemane moment in an empty church, asking a God whose existence he doubts whether He has any plan or purpose for Luke, finally interpreting an unpromising omen as a cue to give up his life. Luke himself is as uncomfortable with his eventual role as hero of the work camp as he is with any role life tries to force on him. Rebel he may be, and rebel he may against real oppressors, but Luke's rebellion is no more principled or conscientious than Marlon Brando's in The Wild One. Brando's biker, asked what he rebelled against, answered, "Whaddaya got?" Luke might well answer, as in a moment of fatigue, "I dunno, boss." The movie never tries to explain his rebelliousness apart from noting a broken home -- abandoned by his father, raised by an aunt. He has no theory of rebellion beyond, "just because it's the law don't make it right." For this film's purposes, that's enough.
Luke doesn't rebel for a living. He may well have settled into a stint as idol of the cons had the bosses not insulted and provoked him, sending him to "the Box" on no more pretext than a fear (having seen White Heat?) that his mother's death might drive him to attempt escape. Their own actions provoke the response they feared as Luke makes three breaks for freedom. After the second, his acolytes appear to desert him after he seems to break under physical and mental torture from the bulls, but Dragline's faith is restored when a seemingly tamed Luke seizes a truck and drives off. Dragline needs to believe that Luke had faked being broken, that even as he was clinging to a guard's foot he was planning the third escape. He seems undissuaded when Luke assures him that he was broken and had not planned the truckjacking in advance -- "I never planned anything in my life," Luke insists. Kennedy takes Dragline in an odd direction in these last scenes, turning him from the bully of the early scenes into a Lenny to Luke's George -- a Lenny for whom, in a way, George will sacrifice himself. Yet if Dragline has become as a child in Luke's presence, even as Luke tries to blow him off once and for all, there's a hint at the end that Luke has actually enlightened Dragline in some way. Before Luke, Dragline himself had seemed content to be the king of the cons, but Luke taught him to recognize his chains. That Dragline ends the film shackled actually seems like a sign of progress, proof that he's now travelling Luke's path, for whatever good it will do him. Because Luke himself remains an enigma, Dragline's relationship with him becomes the real story of the film -- which is, I suppose, how Kennedy earned that Oscar.
Stuart Rosenberg wasn't really a great director. He too often calls attention to his and cinematographer Conrad Hall's gimmickry, particularly the mirrorshades of "the man without eyes," and makes some odd pictorial choices like a huge closeup of a singer's mouth during a hymn. But he tells the story smoothly, though Lalo Schifrin's score threatens at times to overwhelm the images, and lets his vast ensemble of character actors do their things. Seeing the picture on a big screen made it more atmospheric, more sensual in a grubby, sweaty sense. It reminds you how a star on the big screen commands not just the screen but the whole theater. Seeing it whole for the first time in a long time also reminded me of how much Cool Hand Luke has influenced the Coen brothers, from their recreation of the mirrorshade man in O Brother Where Art Thou to the echo of Clifton James's orientation speech in The Hudsucker Proxy. It's odd because the Coens have never done anything in spirit like Luke, but it gives you an idea of the impression Rosenberg makes visually, despite what I said above. The film may have a mixed message, but there's definitely no failure to communicate here.