Sometimes nothing is a very cool hand. But all it takes is one called bluff to end your run. Paul Newman is Luke, a man picked up in a small Southern town for using a pipe-cutter to decapitate parking meters. He’s not stealing them, or after the money inside, just drunk and getting up to shenanigans.
When he’s sentenced to serve time on the prison farm the real problems start. Like Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Luke rates very high on insubordination. He has problems with the guards and the warden and with his fellow prisoners. George Kennedy is Dragline and the prisoner at the top of the heap who imposes his will on the rest of the prison population. He’s tough, but accepts the world as it is and the guards’ authority over them all. Luke’s arrival sparks upheaval when his indomitable will makes him challenge Dragline, the guards, and the system as a whole.
Eventually Luke’s attitude wins the respect of Dragline at least in part because his refusal to let Dragline order him around pairs with a complete disinterest in bossing Dragline. Luke’s code is simple, he refuses to bend the knee to any man for any reason. Luke doesn’t want to rule, he wants not to be ruled; he is unruly. The authorities, most famously personified by Strother Martin’s character, had thought that Dragline would put Luke in his place, but once that hope proves futile they begin to take a hand.
The pressure from The Man builds and builds the longer Luke refuses to back down and be broken. Can Luke actually buck the system? Answering that question, even after the film ends, may not be as clear-cut as it would seem at first. But before we get to the end, there are still plenty of escapades for Luke to engage in. There will be plenty of chances for him to thumb his nose at authority. Sometimes he “gets away with it”, and sometimes there is punishment. The isolation and mental duress take their toll, and this is all the more explicit when contrasted with scenes like the carwash and hard-boiled eggs.
Ultimately when two sides face off and refuse to bend, then one of them will end up breaking.