"Now, what we have here is a failure to communicate" drawls The Captain to the chain gang as Paul Newman's ultra-cool character is dumped in front of them after an unsuccessful escape attempt. The shivers start to run up your spine as the relatively light-hearted first half of the film turns darker and more unpleasant. The previously almost acceptable relationship between the imprisoned and their guards becomes a tightrope of tension. There can only be one winner.
In many ways Cool Hand Luke is a rather dated film. Its dialogue is certainly of its time in cinematic terms. In today's cinema the script would be peppered with obscenities, but in the 1960s the film censors had a firm grip and the strongest language you'll hear in this little gem is the invented insult "motherhead". A fair bit of the supporting acting is also of its time, being a bit overdone and/or hammy, but the principal roles are handled well and the narrative soon draws you in.
There are a number of excellent set-pieces with the chain gang scything the roadside as sinister guards in mirror shades look on. The scene of Luke stuffing fifty boiled eggs down his neck for a bet is something of a light-relief classic in prison films.
It's an obvious forerunner of modern prison movies like The Shawshank Redemption, but avoids the pitfall of a faux happy ending. Luke is an uneducated low-life with a bit of a winning personality amongst his own people, but he's never going to prevail over the mute brutality of the southern US penal system.
If you've not seen it, I recommend getting your hands on a copy; after a slowish start the film starts to raise all sorts of questions about humanity, psychological torture and the true nature of freedom. Notably only two women appear in the entire film: one is little more than titillation as she washes her car in front of the chain gang in a rather outdatedly provocative manner and the other is seen only in passing as she hangs out the washing. So it's not a chick-flick then.
We watched this one in the week without the usual guests because we didn't have time to organise anything before having to return the DVD to Amazon, so film club attendees won't get to see this one with us. Sorry, guys. See you at the next one!