Described as a new kind of anti-comedy when first released nearly 45 years ago, a film written by one of America’s most successful screenwriters still resonates as a stand-out example of fine, no-fuss cinema. Mark Fraser revisits some of the virtues of this modest classic.
WARNING: This review contains spoilers.
Of the three hit scripts penned by Robert Towne during Hollywood’s golden age of the 1970s – The Last Detail (1973), Chinatown (1974) and Shampoo (1975) – it is arguable the opening salvo of this impressive trio is also its best.
While there are many who would say this acknowledgement should be lauded upon the far more influential Chinatown, which was directed by Roman Polanski and received 1974’s Best Original Screenplay Oscar, there are a few qualities in Towne’s previous work (adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan) that not only make its narrative a tad more complex, but helps establish a broader canvas when it comes to character development.
At its bleak heart The Last Detail is a road movie wherein the travelers (three sailors who, interestingly, never board a boat) know exactly where they are going, why they are making the journey and how long it will take to reach their destination.
It is also about the pragmatic nature of comradeship, the fragility of freedom and the obligation to play by the rules – even if the game involves bending them a little.
The story itself is reasonably straightforward. Two US Navy veterans – Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner’s Mate First Class Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) – are assigned to escort Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from their base in Norfolk, Virginia, to the Portsmouth naval brig near Kittery in Maine, where the young sailor is set to serve an eight year sentence for stealing a measly $40 from the collection box of his commanding officer’s wife’s favorite charity.
From the outset it is obvious none of the men really have anything in common with each other except for the fact they are all serving in the same arm of the US military.
While Buddusky and Mulhall are long termers, their past ties aren’t particularly strong when the film starts. Furthermore, neither of them seem to know Meadows – an individual so goofy and timid that he has never been laid or is even assertive enough to re-order fast food when it hasn’t been cooked to his satisfaction.
This somewhat changes, though, when the trio begin their journey up America’s bitterly cold north eastern seaboard, where their modest adventures make for some interesting, albeit potentially mundane, entertainment.
Unlike Chinatown, where the early simmering feelings of intrigue and mystery only briefly come to the boil (and are ultimately sacrificed by a major plot twist involving incest), and Shampoo – in which listless ennui seems to control the main characters’ lives – The Last Detail enjoys a definite sense of purpose from go to whoa; it never falters as it moves along its rigid trajectory despite some unremarkable subject matter.
As a result, the movie establishes a substantial pace as it works its way through a number of low key set pieces where the performances of the three protagonists, who immerse themselves in Towne’s no-nonsense script, are also key to the film’s enduring success.
A night confined to drinking takeaway cans of drinking beer in a cheap Washington hotel room, for instance, becomes a pivotal moment in the narrative as Buddusky shows Meadows some of the basics in semaphore, the signalman teaching the lad in around five minutes an aspect of disciplined naval thinking he has thus far failed to comprehend during what has presumably been his first year of military service.
This scene also sets the stage for what is one of the movie’s other seminal plot developments, when the teenager stupidly tries to escape in a snowy Portsmouth park, only to be chased down and brutally pistol whipped by the man who, in different circumstances, could well have been his mentor.
Having set itself up as an anti-comedy throughout most of its 105 minute running time, it’s at this point the cheery tone of The Last Detail quickly changes to one of deadly seriousness as the trio complete the final stretch of their ultimately depressing journey.
The underlying sense of futility and feelings of repressed anger which bubble beneath the story’s surface truly reveal themselves in the movie’s final (and least sentimentalised) moments, when Meadows arrives at the prison and is quickly whisked away by the guards without so much of a goodbye between the soon-to-be convict and his escorts.
After being told off for causing the lad’s head injuries by an acid-tongued marine officer (effectively played by Michael Moriarty), Buddusky and Mulhall are then berated for not having their orders officially signed by Norfolk’s master-at-arms (Clifton James) which means, on paper at least, they never left their base.
If anything, this highlights how futile the detail really ends up becoming.
As the determined Buddusky, Nicholson gives one of the best performances of his career, although he doesn’t chew up the scenery too much in order to achieve it.
Certainly there is no doubt he is the movie’s lead, but he allows ample breathing space for both Young and Quaid to come into their own as (respectively) the weary voice of caution – who nevertheless goes along with the signalman’s plan to show the teenager a good time before he is incarcerated – and the malleable 18 year-old innocent. If anything, it is a generous piece of acting.
The other reason the drama works so well is the no-frills direction of Hal Ashby, the former editor (he won the 1967 Oscar for his cutting skills on Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night) who became one of New Hollywood’s leading auteurs, his portfolio not only including the Warren Beatty-driven Shampoo, but also other significant features like Harold and Maude (1971), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979).
There is never a wasted moment in The Last Detail; nor are there out-of-place performances from any members of the cast, all of whom obviously understood what exactly was needed to advance the low key drama.
Words by Mark Fraser
Top 10 Films reviewed The Last Detail on Blu-ray courtesy of Powerhouse Films. The Last Detail was released on limited edition dual format Blu-ray/DVD on Feb 27, 2017.
A quick look at the Indicator Series Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray release:
The reviewed Indicator Limited Edition release presents the film via a 4K restoration of the original negative. Perhaps most interestingly, the release presents TWO versions of the film: the original, uncut theatrical version, and the world exclusive home video presentation of the 1976 TV syndication cut. Other extra features include an introduction from filmmaker and The Last Detail fan Alexander Payne, a 16 min film featuring Payne discussing why the film resonates so emphatically with him; and interviews with editor Robert C. Jones and Michael Chapman, the acclaimed director of photography on The Last Detail. An isolated score allows you to sample the film with Johnny Mandel’s original music while new and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing are available for both presentations of the feature. The wonderfully presented dual format DVD/Blu-ray release also includes an exclusive 28-page booklet with a new essay by Michael Pattison, and an examination of the 1976 TV cut.
Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
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