Friday, July 9, 2010

Classic Scene #17

In Cool Hand Luke (1967), Luke is visited in prison by his dying mother. It's a scene bookended by Harry Dean Stanton in the background singing gospel standard Just A Closer Walk With Thee. 'Through this world of toil and snares,' he sings, 'if I falter, Lord, who cares?' The answer to that question is in the same scene when Luke's mother tells him, 'You ain't alone Luke. Everywhere you go I'm with you.' Already then we have the conflation of motherhood and religion, both forms of unconditional love, of shelter and consolation in a crual world. The film's a Christ-allegory, so if Luke is Christ then it makes sense that his chain-smoking old Ma is the Virgin Mary.
Later, informed of her death, he walks to his bunk, picks up his banjo (given to him during that earlier visit) and sings a little boy's idealised vision of his mother, 'a sweet madonna, dressed in rhinestones, sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell'. Now she's gone though, and he's truly alone in this world.
It's hard to imagine how the film could've accessed the complicated layers of emotion and meaning in this scene in any other way. The bright hope of the words in the song contrasting with the bereft performance, the halting way Newman sings it, conveying emotion in a way a more polished performance couldn't have. This is real, private sorrow. 'Goin' ninety I ain't scary, coz I got the Virgin Mary ,' he finishes, tears running down his face, 'assurin' me that I won't go to hell'. He knows now, that's exactly where he is.

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