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COOL HAND LUKE (1967) ****

Paul Newman is Luke. One night, he gets drunk and goes around town decapitating parking meters. He is sentenced to work on a chain gang and slowly gains the respect of his fellow inmates. After the head guard (Strother Martin) harshly sentences Luke to spend time in “the box” for no good reason, he becomes increasingly rebellious. Pretty soon, Luke is making escape attempts and testing the guards’ patience. The guards become especially cruel o Luke, forcing him to make one final desperate jailbreak with his buddy Dragline (George Kennedy) in tow.

I don’t know why it took me so long to see Cool Hand Luke. As much as I love Paul Newman in The Hustler, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and The Sting, this is definitely his best performance. In fact, it’s one of the greatest iconic badass performances ever put on film. Newman’s Luke is kinda like the missing link between the great anti-establishment badasses like Johnny in The Wild One and R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

But it’s not just Newman who shines. George Kennedy won a deserved Oscar for his performance. And Strother Martin is quite good as the Captain who says one of the most famous lines in movie history, “What we have here is… failure to communicate!” And the supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of wonderfully talented character actors. Everyone from Dennis Hopper to Harry Dean Stanton (who sings!) to Wayne Rogers to Joe Don Baker is in the background playing inmates.

Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is flawless. Sometimes it’s a bit free form and jazzy, other times he’s slipping in some subtle symbolism, but it never draws attention to itself and always services the story. There are several memorable sequences. The egg eating scene is famous for a reason, but I also dug the car wash scene too. And Newman’s fight with Kennedy has to be one of the best fight scenes ever filmed. And Lalo Schifrin’s score is simply terrific.

In short, don’t wait as long as I did to see Cool Hand Luke. It’s a true American classic; one that shouldn’t be missed. It’s especially required viewing for any Paul Newman fan.

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