Cool Hand Luke (1967)
From John Garfield in the 1930s to James Dean and Marlon Brando in the 1950s, rebels have long ruled at the box office. With protests against the Vietnam War and racial injustice in the 1960s, they became particularly popular, and 1967 was a watershed year. Warren Beatty turned Depression-era outlaw Clyde Barrow into an anti-establishment hero in Bonnie and Clyde. Sidney Poitier went up against small-town Southern racists in In the Heat of the Night. Dustin Hoffman fought back against middle-class conformity in The Graduate. And Paul Newman scored one of his most iconic roles as a prisoner bucking the system in Cool Hand Luke.
Newman’s Luke Jackson is sentenced to two years of hard labor in a Florida prison camp for an act of drunken vandalism. He refuses to kowtow to the prison power structures, both the system of guards and the hierarchy of prisoners. Though that puts him on the outs with prison management, including the camp captain (Strother Martin), it wins the respect of the other prisoners, including their leader, Dragline (George Kennedy).
Although Luke is one of Newman’s most famous roles, it was originally planned for Jack Lemmon, whose production company had picked up the rights to Donn Pearce’s semi-autobiographical novel. When he read Pearce’s draft screenplay, however, Lemmon realized he was all wrong for the role. His first choice, Telly Savalas, wasn’t available, but Newman campaigned for the part and won. His carefully researched performance would bring him his fourth Oscar nomination, while Kennedy’s sympathetic portrayal of his prisoner friend would win the award for Best Supporting Actor.
d. Stuart Rosenberg, 127m, DCP
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics