Reel Rumbles #4: “Cool Hand Luke” vs. “On the Waterfront”
In This Corner
Terry Malloy “coulda” been a contender. He “coulda” been somebody. Luke Jackson lived according to his own code, never making plans and never looking back. Only trouble: for both men, neither was enough. Together, they took on insurmountable odds, each claiming victory in their own ways. In this week’s Reel Rumbles, only one walks away victorious as On the Waterfront and Cool Hand Luke go head-to-head in a battle of two modern heroes bucking against their oppressive worlds.
Round One: Story
On the Waterfront is first and foremost a film about a crisis of conscience. It highlights the intrinsic virtues of characters who do the right thing even when personal gain is not only an improbability, but something that could very well destroy them. Prizefighter washout Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) spends his days working for union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Friendly’s name is perfect, if not heavy-handed irony, as he is the furthest thing from such a sentiment. In fact, in the film’s opening scene, he dupes Malloy into exposing neighborhood good guy Joey Doyle onto the roof of his building so two goons can dispatch him. Malloy doesn’t know what Friendly has in mind for Joey; nevertheless he assists the young man’s killers and then chooses to keep his mouth shut despite blossoming feelings for the deceased’s sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint). Edie wastes no time in trying to find her brothers’ killers, and she has a feeling that Terry knows more than he is letting on. Still, that doesn’t stop her from developing a few feelings of her own as their relationship ultimately leads to Malloy’s crisis of conscience. Perhaps she affords a certain amount of lenience for the fact that Friendly controls the docks, and will not hesitate to maim or kill anyone who would think of crossing him. No one would dare cross him for fear of the repercussions – or so it seems. Story-wise, On the Waterfront does two things very well. 1) It masters a dark tone and atmosphere that makes danger imminent for any character intent on doing the right thing. 2) It turns that world on its head at the right moment and makes us care about the characters and their relationships to one another. There is depth here: to Terry, to Edie, to the tough-as-nails Father Barry (Karl Malden), and even to Terry’s stooge brother Charlie (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, Friendly is a despicable and thoroughly two-dimensional villain, but for where the focus of the film lies, he is exactly what he needs to be.
The same can almost be said of Strother Martin’s “Captain” in Cool Hand Luke. As the notorious wicked warden figure, he takes a great deal of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of his inmates. Luke Jackson’s (Paul Newman) fierce independence in light of detention triggers a horrible ferocity that appears non-existent when the inmates simply do as they are told. As the Captain says when he meets Luke the first day: “I can be a nice guy, or I can be one real mean son of a bitch. It’s all up to you. It’s all up to you.” In fact, it is easy to imagine the Captain dressing up in his Sunday best, going to church at the start of every week, fraternizing with the like-minded in pleasant and congenial tones, and even showing a softer side around women and children. If you found yourself on the right side of his personality, he could likely seem a very soothing man. But as his personality clashes with his job, the Captain instead feels like a slimy, slithery beast. All it takes is “Cool Hand” Luke to bring it out. When the Captain first lays eyes on his new arrival, he notes that he sees a little “rabbit” in Luke’s blood. This sensation causes the Captain to become hyper-vigilant in stamping out that trait before it comes to fruition. He doesn’t see the Luke that plays nice (most of the time); the Luke that earns the friendship of guards and other inmates. Even Dragline (George Kennedy), initially his enemy, grows to idolize him. Yet when Luke’s mother dies – “Arletta,” he calls her – the Captain throws Luke in the box, citing fear that he will lose his wits about him from the tragedy, and get a little of that “rabbit” blood flowing in his veins. This ignites a discontent in Luke that stirs his restless soul. Instead of quietly serving his two years for public drunkenness and destruction of municipal property – he hates parking meters – Luke starts a personal war with the Captain. It is essentially a battle of two men’s most dominant qualities: Luke’s cunning and the Captain’s ruthlessness. Who ultimately wins is open for interpretation, and the film does a great job of leaving you to make the call.
On the Waterfront is much more on-the-nose with its outcome leaving no questions regarding who triumphs. It barrels forward and leans on its competition with the same two-fisted blunt aggression of its protagonist. Some will prefer it for this very reason while others will find it as heavy-handed as some of the characters themselves are. At the bell, Cool Hand Luke does a better job of morally positioning its characters, handling its setting, and leaving viewers to think about what they’ve seen long after the final frame.
Advantage: 10-9, Cool Hand Luke.
Round Two: Script
On the Waterfront’s story is a simple one about standing up to the bad guys. Its script, however, is anything but by-the-numbers fare. Budd Schulberg’s dialogue takes a good film and makes it great. Highlights include Father Barry’s tirade on the Crucifixion as well as the iconic car ride of doom between Terry and his brother Charlie, where Terry delivers his famous “contenda” speech, and tells his brother about ambition: “Always figured I’d live a little bit longer without it.” Try to do something else while this film plays in the background, and you will get hit with combinations of great lines right and left – too many for you to remember them all, and too many for you to continue doing what you were doing without the film stealing your attention entirely. Of course, Cool Hand Luke puts in a great performance of its own. Martin’s “What we have here is failure to communicate,” line, and Dragline’s hysterical delivery of, “Get mad at them damned eggs,” during the 6-pound hardboiled challenge that Luke gets himself into are both great moments, but it’s probably Luke’s one-on-one talk with a silent God in the film’s third act that leaves the biggest impression. Kudos also goes out to writers Frank Pierson and Donn Pearce (who also wrote the novel on which Cool Hand Luke is based) for their earthy and realistic characterizations.
A barnburner round, this one goes to On the Waterfront by a smidge, 10-9.
Round Three: Performances
Two of the greatest actors playing two of their most memorable roles: Brando does an excellent job of transitioning Terry from coward to hero, and manipulating audience emotion to serve both purposes. But it is Newman as Luke that defines his entire career with this one performance. Everything audiences loved about the man through all of his many roles as well as his charitable work off camera is on full display here, wrapped up in an all-too-human package. Newman’s other roles may have sometimes equaled what he does with Luke, but they never bested it. And while it is easy to get lost in raves for the two men, the supporting casts for these films should not be neglected. In Waterfront, Saint, Steiger, Malden, and Cobb, all do standout work. Cobb’s courtroom blow-up scene was ripped off completely by Brian De Palma and Robert De Niro in the otherwise excellent The Untouchables. In similar fashion, Cool Hand Luke boasts a strong showing of supporting appearances featuring Dennis Hopper and Harry Dean Stanton. And that doesn’t even consider Kennedy’s shining moment as Dragline, a simpleton of the highest order, who unknowingly deifies Luke to himself and the other inmates, often to Luke’s chagrin.
A back-and-forth battle at the end of three, the advantage goes back to Cool Hand Luke, 10-9.
Round Four: Direction
Cool Hand Luke was director Stuart Rosenberg’s first major feature. To that point, he had done mostly television work, but he handles everything with the style and class of a pro. The Depression-era setting is like looking through a viewfinder into the bleak desolate past of an eroded America. Lalo Schifrin’s musical overtones as well as gospel and folk music numbers are integrated seamlessly into the action. He allows not one artificial performance, and the way he photographs faces are second-to-none. From the man in the glasses to Luke’s breakdown at the death of his mother, Rosenberg doesn’t use any trick filming techniques and gets more emotional response from viewers without relying on fifty smash-cuts.
Director Elia Kazan (East of Eden, A Streetcar Named Desire) puts forth a superior effort with tight pacing and sometimes shocking violence in On the Waterfront. The church riot and dockside finale are two good examples, though the conclusion lacks a certain punch of realism inconsistent with the rest of the film, and for this, blame belongs on Kazan’s shoulders. But mostly, his storytelling is exactly what it needs to be: straight-forward, tense, and fulfilling.
And the Winner Is…
It is true that Terry Malloy could have been a contender, but in the end, he became something much more: a bona fide hero. It’s a tall order to beat for someone like Luke: a person with virtually no family, no friends, and no freedom. Luke has nothing, but as you learn in the film’s first act, sometimes having nothing can be a pretty cool hand. In the end, it’s a hand that pays off.
Winner by SPLIT DECISION: Cool Hand Luke.