Petty criminals will not play by the rules set forth to them. Let us be reasonable, for fiction would not be entertaining if the protagonists were those who played it by the book. Goody two-shoes do not make for engaging individuals in reality or fiction, not slick, beer-drinking rebels, and Cool Hand Luke’s greatest strength is the rebellious charm Paul Newman can bring to this role. Opening on the man himself wrenching open parking meters, his charm comes from the nonchalant attitude to his crime, the drunken stupor and the questioning audience. What could possibly drive a man to this sort of lowly crime? He clearly has no care for his actions, as evidenced by his arrest and his attitude to the officers of the law.
His grinning face is a reflection of not just his attitude towards order, but towards power. Quite simply, he doesn’t care for it. That attitude has been represented by the many crooks and killers that flooded the screens, but none are so likeable as this. Director Stuart Rosenberg makes sure Newman’s portrayal of Luke Jackson is not just charismatic, but also far away, initially, from dubious behaviour. Sure, wrenching up parking meters is a nuisance, but it isn’t a theft gone wrong or a murder most foul. Our attachment to Jackson is, primarily, because he is a man without real sin. Especially not when compared to the men he brushes shoulders with, those shirtless many who are introduced cleaning roads as the buses bring the new blood in.
Heroes bubble up in the oddest of places, and Cool Hand Luke is no exception to that. Jackson is the rebellious hero, but his actions are not necessarily sadistic or ill-mannered. He refuses to conform, and there is beauty to that. A twinkle in the eye of Newman is permanently fixated. Initially, he is respectful of the captain. His attitude is everything you would expect of the usual American man, but it is his fight or flight response while in the prison itself that makes for the most engaging of moments. He’s the man who is out of step with time itself, and Cool Hand Luke defines him as the uncontrollable force that burns brightly and fades just as fast. Newman and Rosenberg bring that to life with such care, turning him from a respectful drunkard into a rebellious icon for his fellow inmates. Either way, he is at odds with the long arm of the law, and there is no escape from those consequences.
It is the camaraderie of prison life. Inmates sticking together, eating huge amounts of rice. Punishments are shared out among those who can have a bit of respect for one another, not just because they find themselves in the same places as one another, but because they are bound by the chains that are keeping them there. Much of Cool Hand Luke underlines the idea that prisoners stick together because they sure as hell won’t find solace or sympathy from guards or outsiders, and that much rings true with the performance Newman gives. His stunning efforts make for a relatable, enjoyable leading man, one whose small-time crime paves a path to accidental infamy among the men he, presumably, never brushed shoulders with before.