It was one of those life coincidences that Cool Hand Luke has got to the top of my to-review pile on the day that news of Paul Newman’s death came through. The film has been one that I’d been intending to watch for years – the DVD edition remained in shrink-wrap, to my shame – and it’s taken a ‘definitive’ Blu-ray release to get me to finally put a disc in a player. This isn’t resistance to Newman or the film – quite the contrary; The Hustler, for me, remains a masterful movie, as does The Sting and – inevitably – Butch Cassidy. But for some reason, Cool Hand Luke had never made it out of the box.
Shame on me for taking so long, because the film is, as I suspect many reading already know, a brilliant piece of work. Centred around Newman in the title role, he’s rarely been better than he is here as the prisoner who refuses to conform and refuses to be broken. It’s not an overt performance by any measure, but instead one that works on subtleties and careful character development. He’s aided terrifically by the supporting cast, of which the standout is surely George Kennedy. To a generation, George Kennedy is Frank Drebin’s boss in the Naked Gun movies, but here, as Dragline, he’s just brilliant – and Oscar-winning – as the effective leader of the prison chain gang.
It’s a film that deliberately takes some time to tell its story, but it’s time very well spent. Characters are properly fleshed out, and the late Stuart Rosenberg’s direction is a career high for him. But don’t let anyone tell you that Cool Hand Luke is anything but Newman’s film. Whether eating his way through the infamous pile of eggs, or simply sitting and being still, it’s a mesmerising acting performance from an actor who cinema will never be able to replace.
The Disc While not bursting with extras by any measure, what you do get on this disc at least has substance to it. Let’s start with the image transfer, which for the vast majority of the running time is very good. You’re in little doubt you’re watching an older film, of course, but it’s a good clean-up job that only struggles a couple of times as excess grain creeps into the frame. However, it’s hard to imagine that the film has ever looked much better.
The sound is absolutely nothing special, though. It’s a mono track, although we don’t have a major problem with that. Though the remastering of old mono soundtracks into 5.1 has had its moments, our preference is usually to have the original source audio intact, as it was originally intended. That’s the case here, whether you like it or not.
So onto the extras, and we kicked off with the near-half hour Making Of documentary. It’s a retrospective piece, and director Stuart Rosenberg contributed before his death. Most of the major cast and crew pop up, too, although Newman himself is absent here. We particularly liked Kennedy talking about how this kind of role was so unexpected, and how a guy like him wasn’t supposed to win an Oscar. And while the documentary doesn’t dig particularly deep, it’s still interesting enough.
The commentary track is the other significant feature of note, and it’s Eric Lax who is on commentary duties. He’s Newman’s biographer, and it quickly becomes very clear that he’s a major fan of the film, too. Inevitably, he focuses a lot of Newman, and it almost feels like an academic accompaniment to the film, and – sadly – not a vital one. The only other extra to entertain yourself with is the theatrical trailer.
Perhaps someday there’s a true in-depth special edition of Cool Hand Luke to come, but this really isn’t it. However, it’s good to see the main feature itself looking so strong, and it serves as a pertinent reminder of just how big a talent Newman was. The disc may not be essential, but the film absolutely is.
Cool Hand Luke is out now on Blu-ray