November 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 7
Cool Hand Luke made its debut on November 1, featuring Paul Newman in his strongest role to date as the rebellious hero of a Southern chain gang. George Kennedy won an Academy Award playing Dragline, Luke’s rival-turned-apostle in the camp. Director Stuart Rosenberg and cinematographer Conrad Hall made the dry outskirts of Stockton, California, look like a steamy Southern prison camp, and Strother Martin in the role of Luke’s icy tormentor introduced the understated phrase “What we have here … is a failure to communicate.” The saying accompanied Newman’s laughing face in newspaper ads for the film. “That traditional object of sorrow and compassion in American folk song and lore, the chain-gang prisoner,” wrote The New York Times ’s Bosley Crowther, “is given as strong a presentation as ever he has had in ‘Cool Hand Luke.’” At least as important to audiences as the film’s message about power was Newman’s high-spiritedness in the lead role, which saved the picture from obviousness. His Luke is bragging and unmartyrly, especially after his transformation to “Cool Hand Luke” when he earns the awe of his fellow prisoners by eating fifty hard-boiled eggs on a bet. Beneath the film’s sweaty realism lay—for those who wanted it—the half-buried story of the last days of Christ, complete with a centurion in mirrored sunglasses at the film’s end. Although Life magazine’s Richard Schickel found the photography too beautiful for the darkness of Donn Pearce’s story, most reviews were favorable.
Newman had played—against type—the middleweight boxer Rocky Graziano ( Somebody Up There Likes Me ), a lowlife pool player who has his thumbs broken ( The Hustler ), a moody half-breed Apache ( Hombre ), and other roles that seemed self-consciously unpretty. But it was as the detective in Harper (1966) that he hit his stride, and in Cool Hand Luke the former pretty boy really made good, as if all his on-screen suffering had finally lent him weight.