BR: Last Detail, The (1973)

March 22, 2016 | By

LastDetail1973Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: January 19, 2016

Genre:  Comedy / Drama

Synopsis: While transporting a young sailor to a navy prison, two guards decide to show the boy a bit of life before he’s locked up for 8 years.

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music Track / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.





Scripted by Robert Towne (and preceding his Oscar-winning classic Chinatown by a year), Detail is also renowned for packing in a then record-breaking level of “fucks,” which must have made studio Columbia rather nervous in unleashing such a profanity-laden film on audiences, but Ashby’s film reportedly didn’t click whole-heartedly at the box office, and if the trailer is a sample of the studio’s marketing campaign, they simply had no idea how to sell a movie where not much happens.

The bathroom fight excerpted in the trailer makes Detail out to be a wacky free-for-all comedy about drinking, gambling sailors ‘on the loose,’ but Darryl Ponicsan’s story is a very bittersweet tail of two low-level marine ‘lifers’ who develop a soft spot for the 18 year old kid they’re transporting to a military prison for theft, where he’ll likely lose 8 years of his life for reaching for but never actually lifting $40 lousy dollars from a charity box.

The harsh penalty awaiting tall and lanky Meadows (Randy Quaid in a great understated performance) stirs up a need to show the kid a bit of life before he disappears for almost a decade, and while Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) leads the trio into assorted misadventures – having an awesome hotdog, visiting his mom, getting hammered, a night with a hooker (Carol Kane), and said bathroom brawl – partner Mulhall (Otis Young) sees the logic in showing the kid a good time before prison life turns him into a harder-edged creature.

For all the wacky misadventures, the film’s raison d’etre (and the reason it ultimately clicks with fans) is a simple speech Buddusky gives on a snowy, chilly picnic table, hours before Meadows is to be transported to Portsmouth. It’s one of Nicholson’s finest screen moments and a great chunk of writing because it ramps up the tension to which Ashby’s been slowly layering, and the possibility of whether Meadows will escape to Canada, or his new friends will follow orders and deliver him to prison officials knowing everything about Meadows’ cruel and severe punishment is rooted in a power tripping officer’s wife. Meadows is a petty thief, but he’s a good kid who deserves a second chance.

Detail is peppered with political subtext, but it’s kept low, often vanishing after a quick joke or dry reference to race, religion, the Vietnam War, or bad vices, making the film a discrete time capsule rather than an overt critique, but it also stays within a fairly grim, almost (but not quite) nihilistic groove about average people trapped in ruts. Meadows will lose a chunk of his youth and may never succeed in transcending a banal career, whereas Buddusky and Mulhall are already there, stoically embracing the structured marriage to the marines instead of breaking out and joining the working poor they visit on furlough.

The prostitutes are somewhat portrayed as the female version of the trio – settling for whatever cards they’ve been dealt with a similar measure of stoicism and boredom as they’re told what to do when not staring at a flicking TV– although the lone exception is Nichiren Shōshū member Donna (Roger Corman stock company alumnus Luana Anders), who tries to encourage Meadows to flee to Canada.

The sailors’ encounter with the religious group is absurd and hysterical, but it’s also packed with some of the fine character actors that drop in and out of the film after a few quick shots or scenes. Among the group’s members is Gilda Radner in her screen debut, alongside veteran Canadian actor Derek McGrath (Cheers, Best Laid Plans), plus Jim Henshaw (soon to become a prolific CanCon TV writer & producer). Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill) also makes an appearance as one of Donna’s friends whom Buddusky tries to impress, and Michael Moriarty (Q The Winged Serpent) and veteran character actor Clifton James (Experiment in Terror, Live and Let Die) appear as pushy officers.

Director Ashby has a cameo watching Buddesky shoot darts in a bar, and cinematographer Michael Chapman (making a rather grungy debut with a raw, docu-styled look) appears as a driver (more or less) willing to take soldiers in his taxi cab after a fleet refuse to stop for the uniformed boys.

Johnny Mandel’s score (isolated on a separate track) is minimal yet functional, literally drumming up momentum with a recurring march and punctuating the finale with a weirdly regal brass version of “Three Blind Mice.” Michael Haller’s production design is grungy and sweaty (even in the winter settings), and it seems most of the film was shot in dreary locations as Buddusky and Mulhall take advantage of the generous 5 days and per diems allotted by their superiors to deliver Meadows to Portsmouth.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray boasts a crisp transfer, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes contextualize what certainly fits as a companion piece to Ashby’s prior and highly idiosyncratic road movie, Harold and Maude (1971). Towne would also co-script one of Ashby’s biggest commercial successes, Shampoo (1975).

Works adapted from literary works and scripted by Darryl Poniscan include The Last Detail (1973, Cinderella Liberty (1973), Taps (1981), Vision Quest (1985), Nuts (1987), The Boost (1988), School Ties (1992), and Random Hearts (1999).



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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