One of those that I waited for was Cool Hand Luke, which is now getting a glorious DVD release from Warner Home Video. It hits shelves Sept. 9. Looking and sounding magnificent, this DVD is a great way to be introduced to one of the seminal films of the 1960's or, if you've already seen it, a great way to revisit it.
Paul Newman stars as Luke Jackson, a drunken, small-town loser who is arrested for cutting the heads off parking meters. He's sentenced to a prison chain gang, where he initially earns the enmity of his fellow prisoners, most notably the hulking Dragline (George Kennedy). Luke's unflappable never-say-die attitude toward the sadistic guards eventually changes the situation, and he becomes a de facto leader to the group. Later, he makes a series of escape attempts. Each time, the other prisoners cheer him on. And each time he's hauled back, a little piece of their collective soul dies, especially when it appears that the guards have finally broken Luke of his rebelliousness.
It's not hard to see why this movie was so popular. Released in 1967 during the protest era, Cool Hand Luke gave audiences an anti-hero for the ages: a guy who was technically a lay-about but who cheerfully flaunted authority figures. It's a character that still maintains a lot of potency today. We root for Luke because, flawed though he may be, the system that houses him is even more flawed. The prison boss (marvelously played by Strother Martin) creates a situation where the inmates are subjected to backbreaking work, authoritarian rule, and general overall cruelty. In Luke, we have a protagonist who delights in tweaking his captors with little concern about potential repercussions.
That's downright badass, and Paul Newman delivers one of the finest screen performances ever as Luke. With his sly smile and knowing glances, we totally buy him as a guy who literally thrives on making trouble. Yet as the movie goes on, Newman also reveals hidden layers to the character; he's not as carefree as he may seem. There is a wonderful moment where his mother (Jo Van Fleet) comes to visit that shows Luke in a more trouble light. Beneath the rowdy exterior lies a guy trying to deal with some genuine troubles.
Cool Hand Luke contains two moments that have gone down in the pop culture lexicon. The first is its famous line, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." The other, of course, is the scene where Luke tries to win a bet by eating 50 eggs. Both are classic moments of the cinema, as well as indicators of how well written, acted, and directed the picture is. Even now, 40 years later, the power of those scenes is intact. That said, it's in some of the smaller moments that Cool Hand Luke really excels: in showing the mundane work performed by the inmates, in the way friendships and bonds develop in an oppressive environment, in the subtle depiction of institutional prejudice. Like all great motion pictures, it works in the grand moments as well as the small ones. The film is a classic for good reason.
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Cool Hand Luke: Deluxe Edition hits DVD on Sept. 9, with the movie presented in widescreen format. Picture quality is outstanding, as is the sound.
Providing an informative audio commentary on the film is Newman biographer Eric Lax, who not only understands the movie well but also grasps how it fits into its star's overall filmography.
Also included is the 30-minute behind the scenes feature "A Natural Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke." Many of the cast and crew members are interviewed, including Oscar winner George Kennedy and director Stuart Rosenberg, who talks at length about one key decision: because the actors were playing outlaws, he let them do what they wanted in each scene and worked around it. This approach brought out their natural camaraderie and also added a layer of authenticity to the tone. Others interviewed include Donn Pearce, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, and screenwriter Frank Pierson. This documentary is both enlightening and entertaining, and it is quite clear that everyone involved remains extremely proud of the end product.
Last but not least is the vintage theatrical trailer. These are always fun because they give us a glimpse of how movies used to be sold.
That Cool Hand Luke is a classic has already been well-established. Fans of the film will absolutely want this Deluxe Edition, which looks great and comes with appealing supplementary material. But I'd like to pitch the movie to those who have never seen it. Here is an example of one of the world's best actors - and most phenomenal stars - at his absolute peak, given a strong character to play in a masterful story and surrounded by supporting players who rise to his level. Everything about the picture comes together to create a work of the highest possible entertainment value. There are, of course, no guarantees in life, but flipping over Cool Hand Luke when you see it for the first time is about as close as you'll ever get.
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