Saturday 28 January 2017

Movie Review: The Last Detail (1973)

A slice-of-life drama about fleeting friendships and the oppressive responsibilities of military life in a civilian context, The Last Detail is an unforgettable low-key road trip.

At the U.S. Naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, Signalman Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner's Mate Richard "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are given a new assignment: escort 18 year old prisoner Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) by train and bus to Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows has been convicted of attempting to steal $40 from a charity jar, and sentenced to a ridiculous seven years because he targeted the favourite charity of the naval base commander's wife.

Badass and Mule hatch a plan to make the most of the trip to break the dull monotony of life on the base. They plot to deliver Meadows to Portsmouth as quickly as possible and then spend a week living it up. But Badass starts to feel sorry for the goofy, oversized kleptomaniac Meadows, and decides to give the kid a good time to make up for what he will lose while serving his sentence. Badass and Mule prolong their stay in New York and then Boston, and introduce Meadows to alcohol and women, while helping him build up his assertiveness.

Directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne, The Last Detail is an understated piece of quintessential 1970s film making. The story of a prison escort detail triggering a road trip cannot be any simpler. The layered theme of psychological confinement holding back all three men emerges slowly, and finally takes over the film with unusual potency.

Stylistically Ashby bathes the film in harsh tones, browns, yellows and whites dominating many of the scenes to represent the unmistakably bleak outlook for all three me. From nondescript cheap motel rooms to characterless diners, the film crawls along an uninspired America surviving through one day just to get to the next similarly joyless day.

And traversing this terrain is one man in handcuffs and two men just as confined in their careers. Meadows cannot help his kleptomania and will be paying the price behind bars for a long time. Badass and Mule are prisoners of their own making. Lifers in the Navy, now stuck inside a military machine but on land and away from any war, their prospects are more grim than anything Meadows faces: at least he gets variety in locale and a release to look forward to. They get nothing except more of the same.

The road trip is a brief escape for all three men, Meadows getting his first introduction to drinking, chanting with hippies, whoring and generally being purposelessly loose. Badass and Mule enjoy the freedom of breaking some rules away from the eyes of authority and doing good by being bad. The three men form a bond of friendship anchored by sailing outside the lines.

Jack Nicholson dominates the film as the anti-authoritarian man reluctantly resigned to a life under the thumb of authority, but seeking every opportunity to bend the rules. Otis Young allows Mule to be a counterbalance, a sailor more invested in the daily regulations of his career but gradually allowing his resistance to crumble. Randy Quaid delivers one of his finest career performances as the clueless Meadows, a man-sized boy with his fate already in the hands of others. Carol Kane, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner appear in small early career supporting roles.

The Last Detail momentarily challenges all the small details in the inconsequential lives of three men, but the vast emptiness of soul confinement is an overpowering, if quiet, force.

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  1. I love this movie since I first saw it more than 15 years ago. I´v seen it many times and it still has a "like for the first time" quality. It touches the soul without being sentimental. True artistic achievment, I think.

    1. Very well-stated, thank you!

    2. Well, I really like most of Hal Ashby´s films, certainly his 70s flicks - The Landlord, Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Coming Home and Being There - I consider them to be among the best of this era and I truly love them all, I love their free spirit, its celebration of life and they all really hit me deeply in my soul and they did it so naturally, so simply without trying so hard, it´s almost unbelievable that after Being There Ashby and his art fell so quickly and hard to the ground.

    3. I am also a big fan of Harold and Maude and Being There. I really don't like Shampoo. I last saw Coming Home ages ago, around the time it first came out -- I need to revisit it. I'm not yet familiar with The Landlord. I recall also watching Ashby's 8 Million Ways To Die back in 1986; it was an entertaining mess of a film, and I'm looking forward to rewatching that one!

    4. May I ask, you saw Coming Home in theater in 1978? And also you saw 8MWtD in theater too? So, you are around like 65? Well, I ´m 40 and I´ve seen all Ashby´s films on TV and on DVDs. When you mentioned 8MWtD, I saw it on HBO cca 10 years ago and it really was completely different than the films from 70s, like from other director...but, just recently I rewatched To Live and Die in LA and it´s very similar film to 8MWtD, it´s crimithriller, it has similar mood, but I thing Freidekin´s film is much better, I was excited by it, I love Friedkin´s films and I noticed that You haven´t rewieved To Live and Die in LA, so I don´t know how do You like this film, but I really enjoyed it much more I´ve seen it newly than before. It´s such a non black/white film, everyone in it is more or less bad, it looks very authentic and realistic and there are good actors - Petersen, Dafoe, Turturro, these three are great in it and it doesn´t have a cliche happyend, it´s much more complicated than ordinary crime films. What do you think of it?

    5. I'm not quite that old! I was a young teenager around 1978. Yes, I saw To Live And Die in LA when it first came out, and I remember that I loved it, and I recall that all the characters were morally grey. It is "in the queue" to be rewatched and reviewed on this site (but the queue is long, so I don't know when I will get to it!).

    6. The only one film I haven´t seen of Ashby´s is Second-Hand Hearts. This film is literally unable to see anywhere. It never was on TV or DVD. It´s so unavailable. Have you seen it? Almost the same is with his Lookin' to Get Out and The Slugger's Wife. They can´t be seen on TV or DVD. I´v seen them but only in english, without czech subtitles and I don ´t understand everything in hearing, I´m used to read subtitles when I watch english speaking film, you know? Anyway, Ashby´s 80s pics should be available on DVD, it´s a shame they aren´t. Are they available at your country?

    7. I have not seen those ones! But there may be good news: Second Hand Hearts appears to be available on YouTube Movies - check that out. The Slugger's Wife is also available on YouTube Movies, but I'm not sure what subtitles they offer.

    8. I checked it out, but I found only clips from these films.


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