Wednesday, April 15, 2009

COOL HAND LUKE - Blu-Ray (WB 1967) Warner Home Video

"See, what we have here is a failure to communicate!" In essence, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a throwback to the ‘big house’ subgenre of gangster/crime movies from the early 1930s; gritty, but with a likeable anti-hero at its core. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Warner Bros. – the studio that pioneered this genre - should have also bankrolled this film after a previous arrangement between Rosenberg and Columbia Studios fell apart.

The script by Don Pearce and Frank Pierson (based on Pearce’s episodic novel) captures a lot of the textured nuances of a disenfranchised small town loner without delving too deeply into what makes the character tick.

When first we meet Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), he is a returning war hero without a care in the world. After drinking up a storm and feeling no pain, except perhaps slaphappy 'feel good', Luke is discovered by a police officer sawing the heads off of parking meters. He is promptly incarcerated and placed in a state work farm overseen by a calculating law man known only as Captain (Strother Martin).

Each day, the prisoners are taken from the farm and placed on road crew duty – toiling long hours in the hot sun clearing debris and re-tarring weather worn surfaces. At one point in the film, the men are forced to clear a roadway near a derelict farm house where a nameless backwoods temptress (Joy Harmon) delights in soaping up an old jalopy in the most sexually explicit way.

Aloof and keeping largely to himself, Luke incurs the wrath of fellow inmate, Dragline (George Kennedy) who challenges him to a boxing match. The diminutive Luke is no challenge for Dragline who delights in pummeling him into the ground – that is, until Luke refuses to give in. With each bone shattering blow knocking Luke back into the dust Dragline realizes that there is just no stopping Luke’s obstinacy.

Ironically, from this moment forward, Dragline develops a deep admiration for Luke. Thus, when Luke later declares that he can eat 50 eggs in one hour, Dragline becomes Luke’s most ardent proponent, challenging the rest of the prisoners to bet on the event. The first half of the movie builds on this buddy/buddy camaraderie with Dragline developing an almost religious affinity for Luke.

However, after Luke’s mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) dies, Luke is forever a changed man. Owing to Luke’s more somber outlook, the Captain resolves to place Luke in solitary confinement rather than risk his attempting to escape while working the road crew. Luke, who has been a model prisoner until that time, decides that he can endure imprisonment no more. Hence, he first attempts a daring night time prison break and later, an even more bold escape from the road crew. In both cases, he is caught and returned to the work camp where his outlook continues to deteriorate.

Captain punishes Luke by making him dig and re-dig the same hole to the point of complete exhaustion. Luke fakes a broken spirit convincingly enough to be reinstated on the road crew where he once more makes a dramatic escape, this time with Dragline in tow. The police soon catch up to them however and Luke, after being told that he will merely be sent back to the camp as punishment, is instead gunned down outside of a church by the police. After attempting to avenge Luke’s death, Dragline is severely beaten and taken back to the work camp where he relays Luke’s last act of heroism to the other prisoners.

Conrad Hall’s cinematography is stark, yet lush – creating a visually gorgeous palette through his framing. Ironically the photography came under considerable scrutiny by critics who thought the effect ‘too pretty.’ On the contrary, Hall’s ability to incorporate the stark flat reality of the work camp with the rather claustrophobic interiors of the sweatbox facilities the men sleep in presents an appealing counterbalance to the storytelling.

Newman is at the top of his game as Luke; brilliantly reconceived from the novel’s Luke to be an appealing foil for the local law enforcement that are portrayed as unattractively cynical and morally jaded at best. The camaraderie between George Kennedy and Newman is genuine, provided the essential glue of the piece from whence all other points of interest and plot entanglements within the script are thoroughly explored. In the final analysis, Cool Hand Luke is an admirable update to the classic Warner gangster/crime drama produced on mass three decades earlier.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray disc easily bests their standard DVD in all departments. Colors jump to life with realistic flesh tones and vibrant greens. On the standard DVD the sun burnt flesh of the men on the road crew registers a flat pasty orange. On the Blu-ray there is more variation in tonality. Fine details are prevalent throughout. The Blu-ray is razor sharp, while the standard disc exhibits some minor softness – particularly in background detail. Black levels are deep, rich and solid. Whites are clean and bright, though never blooming. Edge effects are present on the DVD, but not on the Blu-ray.

The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a thorough documentary on the making of the film with interviews from director and costar George Kennedy. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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