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Communicating how great ‘Cool Hand Luke’ is

There are certain movies, no matter how many times I’ve seen them, if I stumble upon them while channel surfing, I have to stop and watch.

Even if I tell myself, “I’m just gonna watch this one scene,” more often than not I don’t touch the remote again until the closing credits. It doesn’t matter that I start in the middle, because I’ve seen it so many times from beginning to end.

“Cool Hand Luke,” which is showing at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Robins Theatre in Warren, is one of those movies.

Even those who haven’t seen it probably know two things about it. The first: Isn’t that the movie where Paul Newman’s character eats 50 hard-boiled eggs?

Yes, it is.

And second is the oft-repeated quote delivered by Strother Martin’s cruel warden: “What we’ve got here is … failure to communicate.” (Strother Martin is one of the greatest character actors of all time, but that’s a topic for another column).

But the movie is so much more.

Newman’s resume is filled with memorable performances in iconic films, but “Cool Hand Luke” probably is the movie I’d pull if it had one chance to convince someone of his talent, both as an actor and as a movie star who commands absolute attention whenever he is on screen.

Perhaps the only person who doesn’t think Newman is the perfect actor (maybe the only actor) for the role is Donn Pearce, the ex-con who wrote the book on which the film is based.

According to the article “15 Hardboiled Facts About Cool Hand Luke” in Mental Floss magazine, Pearce wasn’t a fan of the movie and said in a 2011 interview that Newman “was so cute looking. He was too scrawny. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.” Further proof that sometimes authors aren’t the best judges of adaptations of their work.

Luke clearly is portrayed as a Christ figure (check out the pose at the end of the hard boiled egg scene) and the sweat and the lighting give him a beatific glow. Cinematographer Conrad Hall makes the viewer feel the unbearable heat of working on the road crew or a night in the box. The movie radiates such warmth, if the Robins had played the film last weekend, it might have melted all that ice on driveways days earlier.

Shockingly, Hall wasn’t nominated for best cinematography for “Luke,” although the three-time Oscar winner did get nominated that year for “In Cold Blood.”

Martin and Hall are only some of the talent that surrounds Newman on screen and behind the camera.

The cast is filled with familiar faces — Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Clifton James. As a kid who probably saw the movie for the first time in the early / mid-’70s, I’m sure I said, “Hey it’s Trapper John and the dad from ‘The Waltons,'” when Wayne Rogers and Ralph Waite came on screen.

“Cool Hand Luke” was one of the first theatrical releases directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who had spent a decade primarily directing television. Newman clearly enjoyed working him — they teamed later on “WUSA,” “Pocket Money” and “The Drowning Pool” — and Rosenberg had a couple other successful films (“The Amityville Horror,” “Brubaker”), but “Cool Hand Luke” clearly was the pinnacle of his career.

Its influence on the prison films that followed, from “The Longest Yard” to “The Shawshank Redemption,” is undeniable.

I hope I haven’t failed to communicate its greatness.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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