My wife and I often talk about writing a book about the films you need to see to get the jokes. When I actually start work on it, the first subject will likely be Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman. The famous line, “What we've got here is...failure to communicate,” has permeated all aspects of pop culture from the song “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses to CSI’s “what we’ve got here is a failure to coagulate” to Internet commentary on a recent vice-presidential debate.
That famous line also articulates the major theme of Cool Hand Luke. Like James Dean’s rebel without a cause, Newman’s Luke is a man struggling to express himself. And he never does quite find the words, although he comes close during a moment of despair while strumming a guitar and singing, “Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus riding on the dashboard of my car…”
Cool Hand Luke opens with Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters. He doesn’t seem to be after the measly pocket change they hold though. They just topple off their posts and clank to the sidewalk. And when the police inevitably appear, he simply welcomes them with a smile. It’s his first of many attempts to communicate. What he is trying to communicate is wisely left to our imaginations.
There is only one character in the film that succeeds in the art of communication. The bulk of the film takes place with Luke behind bars by night and on work detail by day. During one particularly hot day, the inmates are sweating and sweltering by a roadway when a very attractive blond woman emerges from her house and starts washing her car. One of the inmates complains, “Doesn’t she know she’s driving us crazy?” Luke replies, “She knows exactly what she’s doing.”