THE LAST DETAIL (1973) revisited

March 11, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Last evening I attended the second film in the monthly 1970’s series being presented by the Dallas Film Society, Landmark Magnolia Theatre and Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News.  This one happens to be one of my all-time favorites and one that seems to have been forgotten by many … THE LAST DETAIL.

It would be easy enough to understand how the film has drifted into oblivion and become just another one of the many fine films that were born during an incredibly prolific and ground-breaking era, if not for these factors:

1. It received 3 Academy Award nominations: Best Actor (Jack Nicholson); Best Supporting Actor (Randy Quaid); Best Adapted Screenplay (Robert Towne)

2. It features what may be Jack Nicholson’s finest performance, and certainly one of his top 5.

3. The screenplay was written by the great Robert Towne from the novel by Darryl Ponicsan

4. The film was directed by the beloved (but troubled) Hal Ashby, who had a remarkable string of films that garnered a very faithful following

5. Its humor and poignancy hold up very well today as evidenced by last night’s audience response

 Admittedly, I have always viewed this as a “Guy’s movie” – one of those movies that guys love to quote and girls love to hate.  The audience last night was at least one-third female and the overall response was very strong, especially from those who had not previously seen the movie.  Sure, there was one lady who called the film “despicable”, but as Mr. Vognar pointed out, she was probably bringing her own values and morals into the story. 

To do that is to miss the point entirely.  No denying, there is an enormous amount of booze, fighting, shoplifting, prostitution and swearing.  Oh my, the amount and severity of swearing never ceases to amaze. What’s important to note, and has been stated by Mr. Towne on numerous occasions, these are lifelong military men who feel trapped and powerless most of their waking hours.  The swearing and bravado serve as their defense mechanism … their last grasp of independence. 

Though I have seen the film numerous times over the years, I was struck by two things last night.  First, Randy Quaid’s performance brings an incredible amount of humanity and sympathy to a character that demanded a certain approach.  Many actors would have over-played it, but 22 year old Quaid’s baby-face works magic in the scenes where we see the two hard-nosed sailors begin to soften their stance.  Second, Otis Young as Mulhall showed much more range than I had remembered.  He is the perfect centerpiece between Nicholson and Quaid.  As a side note, this was Gilda Radner‘s big screen debut and a couple of years before the birth of Saturday Night Live.

 A quick note on Nicholson.  This is a far different Nicholson than what we have seen recently in The Bucket List or Something’s Gotta Give.  He was coming off a star-making turn in Five Easy Pieces and was on his way to Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  This is a great actor at his absolute peak.  Sure, there is the infamous “I am the bleepity-bleep Shore Patrol” outburst in the bar, but more impressive are his scenes on the trains, or at the picnic.  Great stuff.

Lastly, I’ll mention director Hal Ashby.  His string of fabulous “little” films include Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home and Being There … each quirky, but incredibly insightful, and proof of just what a fine filmmaker he was.

Next month’s screening is the political conspiracy thriller The Parallax View.  It was directed by Alan Pakula and stars Warren Beatty.  For all you youngsters, there was a time when Warren Beatty was Hollywood royalty and not just the old guy who hangs around Annette Bening.