Maybe a third of the way into Cool Hand Luke, the film all of a sudden starts getting really good. It’s when Jo Van Fleet makes her appearance, which provides the film both its single best acting—Newman and Van Fleet are exquisite in the scene—and also director Rosenberg showing he’s actually got a handle on the film’s style. Luke’s got an excess of style—about half of the more ambitious shots work (though they always look great thanks to cinematographer Conrad Hall)—and it’s not clear to Van Fleet’s exit whether or not Rosenberg actually knows what he’s doing.
Unfortunately, even though it’s initially a big positive Rosenberg’s got ambitions, the lumpy second half (and especially the third act) show such a lack of ambition—outside the forced Jesus symbolism, which Rosenberg feigns big but feigns empty. Rosenberg goes on to press with the Jesus stuff without exactly having prepared for it, which also ends up being a problem for editor Sam O'Steen. O’Steen and Hall enable most of the great early filmmaking stuff, but once Rosenberg gives up on anything but religiously themed production design and what not… well, Hall can still make it look good, but O’Steen’s slicing at… soft-boiled eggs. It’s hit and miss.
It also doesn’t help Lalo Schifrin’s first half score seems entirely disconnected from his second half score. Luke’s from a very strange place in time, when you weren’t going to have leading man Paul Newman getting accused of glorying criminals but you also were going to acknowledge criminals were people too (as long as they’re White and it’s the late 1940s and there’s no such thing as prison rape or or beatings or even bullying). Rosenberg’s initial approach is to acknowledge the unspoken through the, let’s just say, mise-en-scène. But instead of actual engaging with that unspoken in the second half, when the film very directly says it wants to question the idea of humanity and empathy and brotherhood and whatever… it just cops out and becomes a disjointed Jesus parable with some amusing chase sequences throughout.
The stuff in the beginning, with Schrifin’s score turning the road gang vehicles driving Newman and his fellow prisoners to and from the prison camp into a nightmare scene… it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t figure in. It’s just Rosenberg flexing. And he’s got some good flexes throughout; how could he not with this cast and crew. Newman, Hall, O’Steen, Schifrin, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, and the entire supporting cast. Rosenberg’s able to mix a lot of acting styles, like gravel-voiced straight shooter J.D. Cannon and mumblecore Harry Dean Stanton. The direction of the cast is impressive. It’s just the scenes aren’t great. Not after a while.
When Rosenberg’s got to figure out how to show Newman alienated and abandoned by masculinity and what not… Luke just shrugs. It does whatever it can to avoid Newman. It’s like a character study until it decides it doesn’t want to get too close to that character.
And instead there’s a bunch of Christian imagery. Only not assembled in any meaningful way, it’s just another gimmick for Rosenberg to utilize. He doesn’t seem to be malicious about it. He’s not covering for any perceived lack in the picture… which is kind of the problem. Rosenberg’s got some moves, a great crew, a fantastic cast, and a script in need. He gets about as far as you can without being able to fix the problem and then throws in some crosses to get to the finish line.
It’s a bummer.
Some great acting from Newman though. Just great. Like, Kennedy’s good and whatnot, but Newman’s big swings hit.