The Last Detail is a quintessential movie of the early 1970s, at once excessive and understated, funny and sad, expertly constructed and played yet somehow loose and improvisational. It is a career high for everyone involved, but tends to get lost in popular histories of the period. Typical of its standing, while the likes of The Godfather and Chinatown receive constant anniversary special editions and re-releases, this is the first time The Last Detail has been released on home video with special features. Relatively new label Powerhouse have put together an exceptional package that will hopefully mean the film receives more of the attention it deserves.
The story is deceptively simple. Two US Navy ‘lifers’ Buddusky and Mulhall, played by Jack Nicholson and Otis Young, are charged with escorting a convicted thief, Meadows (played by Randy Quaid), to military prison. Meadows is only 18, yet has been sentenced to eight years for stealing $40 dollars from a charity collection box. The length of the sentence is due to the charity being his Commanding Officer’s wife’s favourite cause. Buddusky and Mulhall resolve to make the best of what they consider a “shit detail”: get the kid to prison quick, and take advantage of any additional time and expense money. However, plans change as they warm to their impossibly naive, luckless, kleptomaniac charge. Quaid has never drunk, never travelled, never had sex. Using all the time they have available, the Buddusky and Mulhall seek to give Meadows a little life experience before his youth is vindictively wasted in jail.
Though Young and Quaid are both superb, The Last Detail is what it is because of Nicholson, writer Robert Towne and director Hal Ashby. Towne’s script is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, and it richly paints the masculine front necessary to survive military life, while lightly sketching the social circumstances that leave the main characters with few other choices. Here, Navy life is about drinking, brawling, screwing and endurance, and while Young gets on with these tasks quietly (his nickname is Mule), Nicholson’s Buddusky (nickname: Badass) is a one-man walking conflict generator. He’s the one who starts the fights, makes the bets, knows how to find a brothel. With little inbuilt tension beyond the deadline to deliver Meadows, it is Nicholson’s energy that keeps the story alive and moving. It helps that Towne’s screenplay is crammed with memorable, usually profane language that Nicholson delivers with relish. The Last Detail was famous for setting new standards for bad language in a major Hollywood release, and the swearing is constant and inventive. However, what stands out today is not the expletives, but the restraint and confidence with which Ashby presents the material. Camera movement is kept to a minimum and the actors often appear in longshot. The film is set in the depths of winter and this is conveyed beautifully, through the cold, clear light and the shivering figures trudging across the landscape.
For all that it is impossible to imagine this film being made at any other time, its themes and premise are universal. Its view of class, human relations and social injustice are every bit as relevant now as they were 44 years ago.
As noted above, Powerhouse have put together a first-class package for this important (and hugely entertaining) film. Picture and sound are exceptional. The image is authentically grainy, but detail and colour are consistent and sharp, to the extent you almost feel the cold as the characters barbeque in the snow. There’s a great mix of original and archive special features. Powerhouse have commissioned an excellent interview with editor Robert C. Jones, as well as an appreciative introduction and insightful analysis from filmmaker and fan Alexander Payne. An interview clip with Director of Photography Michael Chapman is short but informative. It was Chapman’s first film in the role, and looking back he still seems in awe of both the opportunity and his collaborators. Sadly, Ashby, Towne, Nicholson, Young and Quaid are absent from both new and archival features.
In an accompanying (limited edition) booklet, there are a pair of excellent essays on the film. The first, by critic Michael Pattison, usefully extends Payne’s contribution, analysing the film and placing it into social and production contexts. The second, by Jeff Billington, deals exclusively with the problems and compromises involved in preparing The Last Detail for network television. Brilliantly, Powerhouse have obtained the network television version and included it on the disk. Rather than just a hatchet job (although it is partly that), this alternative cut is fascinating and creative. It is worth seeing both as a record of what could be broadcast in 1976, and for the heroic efforts involved in keeping the remaining footage comprehensible. The extras are rounded out an isolated soundtrack of Johnny Mandel’s score, the original trailer and an image gallery.
Review by Jim Whalley