Poker on Screen: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Poker seems to always have been an integral part of popular TV and film culture, from Westerns to Eastenders and every point on the map in between. Sometimes, it can be the centre of the show, the very reason we all watch, such as the European Poker Tour, the U.K. & Ireland Poker Tour or, well… the lesser-spotted I Bet You, featuring Phil Laak and Antonio Esfandiari.

poker-on-screen-cool-hand-luke-1967In film, however, poker is often used as a bridge for character development. It can be glaringly obvious, such as the way of showing an audience that a central character has a weakness or how a set of characters enjoy social time together.

In the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke, it’s a way of showing how Paul Newman’s title character’s spirit and ability to defy the law as Lucas Jackson pulls off the monster bluff in a friendly game of cards between cons.

Newman’s performance in the movie in general is fantastic and proved equally captivating to audiences, with the film’s budget of $3.2 million gloriously exceeded by the $16 million it took in via the Box Office. To date, the movie has proved popular in top film charts, too, frequently appearing in lists of the best films ever made.

What makes the poker scene so good is how claustrophobic the scene is. Just as walking into a packed poker room can feel like trying to traverse and airport hangar until you get to a poker table, and everything fades away from the point a meter behind the felt, so too does this famous scene pull you in as the men sit two or three deep playing a single hand of poker.

Newman is bluffing on every street, and it’s his poker face that makes a lot of the scene, along with his rivals ability to tie themselves in knots without him saying a word.

When Newman finally wins the hand and shows his bluff, he’s laughed at by a former opponent turned commentator of prison poker, who accuses him of having ‘nothing’.

Newman’s stoic expression cracks into his winning smile and he utters potentially the best line about poker ever spoken on screen.

“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”

Cool Hand Luke is still widely available on DVD, and on many streaming services, its enduring popularity a fine testament to its timeless quality. You can watch the whole poker scene right here, but trust us, the movie as a whole is even better. We wouldn’t bluff you… would we?