Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****

Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) has none of the truculence of the ordinary rebel, consequence not part of his vocabulary, “it seemed a good idea at the time” his unfailing mantra.

Outside of Butch Cassidy, a more amiable criminal you would struggle to find. He defies authority with a smirk, indiscriminate in opposing the system, whether devised by guards or prisoners and they are indiscriminate in return, swiftly punishing anyone who steps out of line.

First-time director Stuart Rosenberg’s meditation on martyrdom remains an iconic curiosity and one of a handful of great performances that showcase Paul Newman’s immense acting skills. It is about ten minutes too long, unremitting sequences of lorries travelling to and from work detail, in the morning or at night, and the work itself, way too repetitive, suggests a director who did not quite trust his audience to get it.

In a prison movie, the main narrative is always escape, but Luke is as much trying to escape from himself as his circumstances. There is a self-pitying aspect in him blaming God for making him the way he is. But beyond these gripes it remains an astonishing and involving work.

This is a world reduced to a single common denominator – brutality. For a man who loathes rules, this is hell.

While no other character apart from Dragline (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) and the Warden (Strother Martin in one of his best mean roles) is given much to do, nonetheless the rest of the cast do not merge into the background, facial expressions and tiny actions revealing character.  

There are a number of terrific scenes – Newman refusing to give in when beaten to a pulp in a boxing match, the egg-eating contest, the digging-the-hole method of destroying a man’s spirit, the guard bewailing the death of his dog. But the movie also examines the universal need for hero worship, Dragline’s bewilderment when Luke eventually fails to live up to expectation is affecting.

Two other aspects stand out. With every prisoner in the same uniform and the countryside bleak and undistinguished, Conrad Hall’s cinematography is miraculous while Lalo Schifrin’s score, with the wonderfully evocative simple theme, is continuously inventive. As definitive an examination of the outsider as the later Easy Rider.

What the Exhibitor Said

The only view the public in the 1960s ever heard was that of the movie critics. Generally more concerned with the bottom line than plaudits (unless those translated into box office), studios could harvest their own opinion about a movie’s worth through reported box office figures. Exhibitors were caught in the middle – being told by critics how good a movie was and by reports in Variety and other trade magazines how well it was doing on initial release.

But how a movie performed in first run often bore no resemblance to receipts in fifth or sixth or tenth or eleventh run, in small towns or places where the population barely topped the thousand-mark. So weekly trade paper Box Office magazine gave exhibitors a voice, allowing them to sound off about an under-performing picture or praise one that still had some juice left by the time it reached their location.

You will see from the titles mentioned below just how long it took for some movies to complete their runs. You can also see the conditions under which theater owners worked – some films only played two days or had their box office nullified by weather.

Reports below are from the March 30, 1964, issue of Box Office and I would assume exhibitors had played the films a few weeks prior to this date.

Hud (released May 1963), drama starring Paul Newman. “Business above average but no one seemed pleased in what they paid for.” – Ken Christianson, Roxy Theatre, Washburn (pop 913), North Dakota. Played Sunday and Monday. He also screened historical epic Taras Bulba (December 1962) starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis on a Sunday and Monday and commented: “Excellent, entertaining, interesting story but below average at box office. Just too many of this type.”

Bye, Bye Birdie (June 1963), musical starring Janet Leigh and Dick Van Dyke. “If you want a small town natural, play Birdie…Bad weather killed the box office.” – W. S. Funk, Kingstree Drive-In Theatre, Kingstree (pop 2,500), South Carolina.

The Haunting (August 1963), horror starring Julie Harris and Claire Bloom. “It is doing all right. The advertising material is so good for a change that I’m not worried about this one.” – Jim Fraser, Auditorium Theatre, Red Wing (pop 12,500), Minnesota. Played Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Nine Hours to Rama (April 1963), drama starring Horst Buchholz. “This picture was definitely a dud in my town. Might have been better as part of a double bill had it had less running time.” – Joseph Machetta, Emerson Theatre, Brush (pop 3,621 in 1960 Census), Colorado. Played Tuesday and Wednesday. The theater also showed the double bill of war drama The Young and the Brave (August 1963) starring Rory Calhoun and William Bendix with the older George Pal sci-fi Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961) and Machetta commented: “The combination was rewarding at the box office. I would suggest trying it as the combination provides interest to most ages.” Played this duo Thursday and Friday.

A Gathering of Eagles (June 1963), drama starring Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor. “A good picture but one of Rock Hudson’s poorest grosses. Airplane pictures don’t set the world on fire for me anymore.” – Terry Axley, New Theatre, England (pop 2,136), Arkansas. Played Sunday and Monday.

Donovans’s Reef (June 1963) with John Wayne and Lee Marvin. “A wonderful family comedy in color and drew a big turnout. John Wayne did a wonderful job and is a big favorite here.” – Leonard J. Leise. Roxy Theatre, Randolph (pop 1,029), Nebraska. Played Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

If you ever attended any of these theaters or know of them or were even in the audience for the pictures mentioned, please get in touch.