New Hollywood Classics: The Last Detail (1973) - Reviewed

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures

The countercultural filmmaking career of editor turned film directing loose cannon Hal Ashby’s brief intersection with up-and-coming countercultural movie star Jack Nicholson in the 1973 Columbia Pictures produced adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s military prison critique The Last Detail remains one of the greatest examples of what was commonly referred to as a New Hollywood of the 1970s.  Characterized by a tendency towards down and dirty gritty realism involving characters at crossroads running counter to the world’s way, films of its sort including but not limited to dramedies like Five Easy Pieces starring Nicholson or Easy Rider again starring Nicholson were episodic road movies functioning either as character studies or ensemble allegories for a changing nation still reeling from a recent unpopular war.
Initially a shock to the ears with its unapologetically foul-mouthed dialogue, reportedly dropping the F-bomb more times than had been heard in a film before as well as frank sex and nudity, drugs and boozing punctuated by rowdy fistfights, the tragicomic slice-of-life tale The Last Detail is exceedingly simple conceptually: two career sailors are tasked with escorting a young rookie from their Norfolk, Virginia base to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine.  

Court martialed and honorably discharged before being sentenced to eight years of hard prison time for trying to steal $40 from a charity box, lifer Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) feeling they’ve thrown the book at the young Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) decide to take pity on him in an aimless series of fun and lively misadventures leading up to the fateful day of his incarceration.  While they seem to be having a good time together, the looming sentencing casts an increasingly heavy pall over the unlikely trio and begs the question whether or not the punishment fits the crime.
Talky, naturalistic and seemingly playing out in real time, The Last Detail is ostensibly in Ashby’s hands a buddy Navy sailor movie focused on lifers coasting through lives that reject the strictly ordained social norms imposed on the then-American populace at the time as a whole.  Take for instance an early sequence where the three sailors go bar-hopping and the underage Meadows is refused service.  The ever-rebellious Badass Buddusky springs into action demanding a beer for the kid and when the bartender threatens to call naval police, an incensed Buddusky pulls a gun angrily declaring he is the naval police.  It’s an explosive aside that is punctuated by laughs of the impish Buddusky laughing together about what they just got away with.  Like the now infamous restaurant scene in Five Easy Pieces with a small inconsequential battle that’s a loss for all but personal victory for Jack’s character, it speaks to Jack’s propensity for diving into characters who know what they want and refuse to accept no as an answer.

Shot by legendary Martin Scorsese cinematographer Michael Chapman of Taxi Driver fame who also cameos as a sleazy cabbie late into the film, the look and feel of The Last Detail while somewhat rough and gritty with occasionally harsh natural lighting is otherwise handsomely photographed and utilizes many real New York City locations throughout.  

The militaristic soundtrack by Johnny Mandel funneling in sardonic notes of “patriotism” as the film’s heroes gradually come to grips with the fact they’re about to bury a young life in death for eight years feels appropriately at odds with the audience’s feelings.  As it drones on, not unlike the drum rolling at the public court-martialed execution closing Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, the soundtrack takes on a feel that’s tap dancing between patriotic and pessimistic.  Their duty is righteous so to speak but their hearts tell them what they’re carrying out is very wrong.
It goes without saying the film would not exist without Jack Nicholson.  Ashby, a Hellraiser himself, was busted for marijuana possession in Canada and while the studio was reluctant about intervening Nicholson’s devotion to the project ultimately bailed Ashby out and they resumed production.  
Nicholson is both a wild and explosive force of nature onscreen, giving off airs of bravado and overconfidence but then in quieter scenes of him simply gazing at the camera or staring into space he exudes interior conflict and uncertainty.  Almost like a raging thunderstorm that slowly percolates before building up to lightning strikes, Nicholson’s performance helps to permanently imprint The Last Detail on moviegoers minds not just for that year but for all cinematic time.

Equally strong is the tragically underutilized Otis Young who was a last-minute replacement for Rupert Crosse who was diagnosed with cancer.  Young is almost as strong and at times seems to steal the show back away from Jack, particularly in a boxcar monologue of Young berating Jack for “getting the kid’s hopes up” by showering him with a good time before imprisonment.  

The real revelation here is Randy Quaid as the troubled emotionally immature rookie Meadows who frequently bursts into tears, tries to escape a couple of times and later finds himself drunkenly laughing with his comrades.  Ordinarily a comedian whose own life story seemed to echo that of Meadows, the role represents one of Quaid’s few Oscar nominated performances.  Also fans of Carol Kane, Nancy Allen, Gilda Radner and Michael Moriarty are inclined to watch out for some most sneaky cameos if not unexpected bit parts late into the film.
Against a small budget of around $2.3 million and a large amount of expletives in the script, The Last Detail was an instant commercial success grossing around $10 million and garnering three Academy Awards nominations for Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid and screenwriter Robert Towne for his transcription of the dialogue and story of the novel while changing around a few of the details to make the film somehow bleaker.  

Though not winning the Palme d’Or for which it was nominated at Cannes, Nicholson took home the Best Actor award at Cannes as well as the National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics Circle.  A cherished, perfectly constructed and poised slice-of-life experience of storytelling, Hal Ashby’s film saw a prequel film adaptation of novelist Darryl Ponicsan’s 2005 book Last Flag Flying from director Richard Linklater sometime in 2017.  Though that film never caught on with the same fervor as The Last Detail, it speaks to both the novel and the 1973 film’s lasting artistic and social value.
While debatable whether or not this is THE quintessential Hal Ashby effort with many pointing to either Harold and Maude or Being There as the grand prize winner, this rare unlikely collaboration between Ashby and a seismic screen power on the rise to superstardom nevertheless is unquestionably a quintessential piece of New Hollywood filmmaking of the then-modern 1970s.  With the Alexander Payne dramedy The Holdovers currently up for Best Picture and Best Actor, the spirit of Hal Ashby, the snarky attitude of Robert Towne and screen titan power of Jack Nicholson is very clearly alive and well in today’s silver screen output and speaks to young-troubled characters facing an uncertain future with an equally conflicted elder at the epicenter as their mentor/gatekeeper. 

Though sadly Ashby would decline in the 1980s, Nicholson would retire, Young would fade from the mainstream and Quaid would himself face prison time, The Last Detail is a poignant bittersweet countercultural pill that speaks to happily formed memories warring against institutionalized misery.  It’s no secret why, shortly after this, Nicholson’s career was canonized by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the actor’s ongoing quest to portray characters defiantly making noisy calls to arms.  The ultimate hot dog and beer buddy military dramedy that is as timelessly funny as it is still urgently furious.

--Andrew Kotwicki