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Film / Cool Hand Luke

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"Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand."

Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 drama film directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring Paul Newman.

It is the story of one Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Newman) during his stay at a Florida prison camp sometime in the late Forties or early Fifties, and how he stands up to the system within the camp.

George Kennedy won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Dragline, the head prisoner who befriends Luke.

Lalo Schifrin's score is well known for its "Tar Sequence" piece, which would go on to be used as theme music for news programs on various ABC owned stations. Australia's Nine Network news program, Nine News Australia, still uses it to this day.

Listin' the tropes here, Boss:

  • Alcohol-Induced Idiocy: Luke's in jail because he got drunk and decided to decapitate some parking meters. Pretty much everyone who hears that this was his crime remarks on the sheer pointless stupidity of it.
    Luke: Small town, not much to do in the evenin'.
  • All Crimes Are Equal: Subverted. Luke's stay was supposed to be short (three to six months), but his antics increase that number.
  • Balloon Belly: There is a shot focusing on Luke's swollen belly after he eats fifty hard-boiled eggs.
  • The Bet: Dragline bets that Luke can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Luke dies and the camp goes back to normal, but the camp director has been one-upped and his bodyguard is similarly broken. Luke's death also appears to have transformed him into a heroic martyr figure for Dragline and the rest of the inmates.
  • Bully Turned Buddy: The relationship between Luke (Paul Newman) and boss prisoner Dragline (George Kennedy) becomes this. Luke is forced into a fight with the much stronger prison bully, whom he shames in front of a crowd by refusing to fall down and take his beating. After this Dragline's new respect turns into friendship.
  • Cardboard Prison: Luke is able to escape prison regularly (though he's usually brought back quickly). Finally, the sheriff has enough and shoots him.
  • Creator Cameo: Donn Pearce, who wrote the original novel, appears as the convict Sailor.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: After the infamous Fifty Eggs contest... strangely enough. There's also the way Luke's photo of him with two ladies is torn, and is slammed in your face at the end. Juxtaposed over a shot of two roads intersecting like a cross, just to drive the point home.
  • Darkest Hour: Luke comes back on his own after he runs away the second time after he grows tired of getting abused by people who threaten to call the police on him. The camp's punishment apparently breaks him, and no one thinks of Luke as a hero anymore... until he runs away the third time by pretending to be brainwashed and dutifully fetch some water from the truck. Dragline assumes he was faking the whole time, but Luke claims he actually had been broken, and this last escape was purely on the spur of the moment.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: For a given value of "defeat". Luke and Dragline start off as rivals and eventually find themselves in a boxing match. While Luke doesn't really beat him, he just keeps getting back up after getting knocked down, making Dragline quit out of tiredness. They soon become friends after that.
  • Delusions of Eloquence: Strother Martin said that his conception of the Captain as a character was that he was extremely dim-witted, and picked up phrases like "failure to communicate" from religious pamphlets, then spouted them over-and-over because he thought they made him sound intelligent.
  • Determinator: Luke's spirit can't be broken, even if he's been badly trounced in a fight he doesn't give up, and he's constantly scheming ways to escape.
  • Fanservice: Paul Newman and a bunch of other men working, frequently shirtless? Also, Lucille, both in-universe and out-of-universe.
  • Fanservice Car Wash: One of the more famous scenes the film has the prisoners watching a blonde bombshell wash her car.
  • Fatal Flaw: Luke's uncontrollable, rebellious nature ends up resulting in his death.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Captain orders brutality upon his prison's inmates while talking about how dare they push him into having to "put their heads right" and how it's "for their own good" in an allegedly-eloquent "aw, shucks" tone.
  • The Film of the Book: Based on a 1965 novel by Donn Pearce, who co-wrote the screenplay with Frank Pierson.
  • Foreshadowing: The magazine page opposite the photo of Luke has a picture of a man aiming a rifle at him.
  • For Your Own Good: When Luke is captured after his first escape attempt and fit into chains before the other inmates, the Captain loudly informs Luke, and the prison at large, how the chains will remind him not to try and escape, ending with "For yer own good." Luke dryly replies "I wish you'd stop being so good to me, Captain."
  • Hood Ornament Hottie: The road crew is forced to watch a sexy blond temptress wash her car.
  • Kick the Dog: During the scene when Luke has to repeatedly dig a ditch then fill it back in again, the spade the guards give him is one with a broad, flat head. A spade like this is designed for digging in loose soil or sand, not hard packed dirt. While it gets easier once he has dug the initial hole, it does take him an entire night just to dig it out the first time, and he's so exhausted he can barely move.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: When Dragline goes on about "Lucille" and how ridiculously sexy she is without even meaning to do it, Luke points out how she was very obviously cockteasing the men.
    Dragline: Oh, god...she doesn't know what she's doin'!
    Luke: Oh, boy, she knows exactly what she's doin'. Drivin' us crazy and lovin' every minute of it.
    Dragline: Shut your mouth about my Lucille.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Luke's "I got my mind right, boss" act could be seen as a variant of this.
  • One-Liner Echo: Luke's final sentence, "What we have here is a failure to communicate," is taken from a speech by the evil warden.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: We never learn the actual names of the inmates besides Luke, although Dragline is briefly addressed as "Clarence" at one point. In the novel his given name is revealed to be Clarence Slidell.
  • Poor Man's Porn: At one point Fixer is shown reading aloud from an erotic paperback novel.
  • Prisoner Performance: Downplayed where one of the inmates, played by Harry Dean Stanton, has acquired a banjo somehow or other and occasionally serenades the other prisoners with old blues and country songs, but it's not on any kind of stage or in any kind of official capacity. In another scene, Luke himself finds a guitar and plays "Plastic Jesus" while the other prisoners listen.
  • Prisoner's Work: We see the prisoners working the field and building roads.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: The director loved Morgan Woodward as Boss Godfrey, but he found that his voice didn't match how intimidating the character needed to be. So all of Woodward's dialogue was removed and his character became The Voiceless.
  • Returning War Vet: Luke is one of these (whether from World War II or Korea isn't specified in the film, though in the novel it's the former). It's revealed that, despite having made sergeant and earned several citations during his time in the Army, he'd also done time in the stockade and gotten busted back down to private by the time he was discharged. Whether his problems with authority and general anti-social behavior are a product, or a cause, of his war experiences is never really addressed.
  • Rule of Symbolism: After the egg eating contest, Luke is in a pose that is suspiciously like Jesus on the cross and Luke has a brother named John.
  • Sanctuary of Solitude: This at the end, with Luke sneaking into a church to talk to God.
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: Donned by Boss Godfrey, also known as "The Man With No Eyes." Who never talks. And who you do not talk to.
  • Self-Inflicted Hell: If Luke would just shut his mouth, keep a low profile, and go along to get along, both his life and his time in prison would be a lot easier. However, due to a rebellious nature that he seems incapable of controlling, he can't do any of these things, and damn does it ever make his life hard.
  • Sinister Shades: Boss Godfrey wears a pair of these while overseeing the prisoners in the hot sun.
  • Super-Persistent Predator: An inversion: when Luke escapes prison, he runs so persistently that the bloodhound trailing him runs itself to death.
  • Theme Tune: While not the primary theme, a piece of music used in a scene from the film called the "Tar Sequence" was licensed by ABC to become the news theme for local newscasts on many of their stations until the mid 90's (when the network commissioned a similar but different tune so that they wouldn't have to pay large royalties for its use) and became a critical part of the Eyewitness News local news format, where it is ubiquitous for being the song associated with American local news. Still in use today by Australia's Nine Network for their theme.
  • Title Drop: Luke wins a hand of poker bluffing with "nothing." He comments, "Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand." This is a big establishing moment for his personality.
  • Uncertain Doom: We don't see Luke's death, but the warden refuses the opportunity to take him to a nearby clinic to treat his gunshot wound and instead opts to return him to the prison hospital, an hour away. One of the deputies opines that Luke will never survive the trip.
  • Wardens Are Evil: The Captain is the sadistic warden of a chain gang prison. He ruthlessly mistreats Luke by locking him in a punishment box and having him beaten.
  • What Were You Thinking?: The Captain asks Luke what he thought defacing parking meters would get him. Luke replies that, being drunk at the time, he probably wasn't thinking.