The Ten Best Quotes from “Cool Hand Luke”

In 1967, the movie "Cool Hand Luke" was released.  Since its introduction that November it has cemented itself as one of the all-time great prison movies.  Not only did it boast one of the greatest leading men, Paul Newman, it was blessed with a supporting cast that provided the perfect complement to Newman’s Lucas Jackson.  Several were destined for their own leading roles.  George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Wayne Rogers all had careers that spanned the succeeding decades.  But, for one glorious moment in movie history, this ensemble created movie magic; two hours of escapism – a peek into the humor and humanity, viciousness and brutality of a mid-twentieth century Florida work prison.

As with any movie, play, or TV show, it all starts with the writing.  And the Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson screenplay of Pearce’s novel of the same name gave us gem after gem of quotes that, like the chilling close-up of the “man with no eyes”, are as memorable today as ever.  Below are what I believe to be the ten best.  The criteria are completely subjective and based on what I believe to be the most enduring.  I first saw the movie around 1980 on commercial TV.  After multiple viewings during the past 30-plus years here are the ones I feel are best.  By the way, these are not ranked, but are simply a list.  Spoiler alert: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate” is not on the list – it’s obviously in a class all by itself.  These are what you might call “deep cuts.”

1. “I hope you ain’t gonna be a hard case.” Spoken by Carr, the floor walker, after listing the numerous rules each new prisoner must follow or be subject to “a night in the box.” Carr says the “hard case” line in reaction to Luke’s silently mouthing “a night in the box.”  This is one of the first memorable lines from the movie, and the scene introduces us to the constant threat held over the men of this particular punishment – an outhouse-sized structure of solitary confinement.  It’s also an example of Luke’s almost involuntary reactions to institutional oppression.

2. “You owe that fella a cold drink.” Luke utters this line as he tries, with a little help from Boss Paul to get back into the truck after his first day of work.  The remark harkens back to an earlier scene where Dragline bets Koko that Luke won’t make it through his first day on the bull gang.  This is the first instance of Luke doing that which others are certain he cannot.

3. “In order to learn ‘em you gotta do more work with your ears than your mouth.” Spoken by Dragline in reference to the “rules” the inmates impose on themselves.  The line is comical because of the universality that the newest members of any group are expected to observe and listen before acting on their own.  The contrarian Luke reacts as one would expect.

4. “Small town, not much to do in the evening.” As the group is riding out to the first day of work for the new inmates, Dragline grills Luke about his service in the war and mocks him for cutting the heads off of “gumball machines.”  Luke, in his unflappable, understated tone, responds with this gem.  This line, like so many others in this movie can be used in every day conversation.  It’s the perfect excuse for an incident you’re not proud of. 

5. “He back-sassed a free man.  They got their rules and we ain’t got nothing to do with that.” This is Dragline’s response to Loudmouth Steve’s inquiry as to whether they went too far in deceiving Alibi, which caused him to spend a night in the box.  The irony here is that while the inmates may not have anything to do with a free man’s rules, they do have their own set that they create and must follow on the inside.  “Back-sassed” is one example of terms that are frequently used throughout the film.  Others include new meat, bear-clawed, and eye-balling.

6. “Anything so innocent, and built like that just gotta be named Lucille.” From one of the most famous scenes in the movie – a scene filled with many great one-liners.  As the girl washing the car does more and more to make the men’s imaginations run wild - and their comments in response express greater frustration - Dragline drops this comic line.  Ultimately, he may not be able to have her, but he can at least give her a name. 

7. “You know, sometimes I wish people was like dogs, Luke.  Comes a time, a day like when the bitch just don’t recognize the pups no more, so she don’t have no hopes, nor love to give her pain.  She just don’t give a damn.” This is a heart-wrenching scene between Luke and his mother, Arletta.  It’s also the only scene in the movie that gives us any understanding of his life before prison – other than the Captain’s mention of his war experience.  This is the statement of a mother who deeply loves her son, but can’t figure out where he went so wrong.  Despite being on the right path so often, he always ends up where he started, or worse.  It’s the true confession of a mother near death yet deeply connected to her wayward son.

8. “Love me, hate me, kill me, anything.  Just let me know it.” One of Luke’s strongest traits is his drive to do the things everyone says he can’t – like keep fighting Dragline after he’s lost the fight, or eat 50 eggs.  This inspires his fellow inmates and makes the bosses nervous and angry.  The question of religion and the existence of God are themes in the film both obvious and symbolic.  (The religious symbolism could be a separate article.)   When Luke rants during the storm in front of everyone, particularly Boss Kean, he is disturbing the “institution” of religion, specifically Christianity – which each boss would no doubt claim to follow. 

9. “Wish you’d stop being so good to me captain.” Okay, it’s critical to understand that without this bit of genuine back-sass, Strother Martin’s character would never have been able to utter his legendary quote.  If Luke is a natural born world shaker, then to say this line required more courage than running away three times.  Every prisoner wants to escape, but Luke is also courageous enough to disrespect authority to it’s face.  Standing there in front of the entire camp, with freshly issued leg chains, he causes the low-key captain to erupt into something just beyond rage.  He even mimics the captain’s habit of spitting just a little.   In order for the captain to regain his composure after Luke’s public disrespecting of him, he has to say something institutional and understated.

10. “Get out there yourself!  Stop feeding off me!” By this point in the movie Luke has become a hero to his fellow prisoners, and they want him to remain free when he escapes.  The picture he sends with the two women only makes him greater.  They think he has made it; he’s free.  When he is brought back to camp, beaten, their ideal of him is broken.  They can’t live vicariously through him if he’s back on the bull gang cutting weeds. So, in this scene they abandon him.  This final scolding lets the others know that they can’t live through him; if they want what they think Luke had on the outside, they have to make their own escape.

These ten quotes are what have stayed with me over the decades of watching this excellent movie.  They’re poignant and memorable, and can sometimes be interjected into everyday conversations.  There are obviously many more quotes that are great.  Here are a few that just missed the cut:  “Stay down. You’re beat.”  “He is one rough old boy.”  “Calling it your job don’t make it right, boss.” 

If you’ve never seen the movie, I hope this article will instill some curiosity and cause you to watch it.  If, like me, you’re a CHL vet, I hope these quotes have stirred up memories about the many great scenes and lines from this American classic.