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It's strange how some truly great performances manage to fall through the cracks of our cinematic consciousness. Everyone knows that, at his best, Jack Nicholson is one of the more electrifying actors in movie history, with his highly-focused work in Chinatown (1974) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) standing as veritable monuments to Sixties-bred iconoclasm. But Nicholson's equally dazzling, Oscar®-nominated turn as a bullheaded sailor in Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) never gets the attention it deserves. Nicholson's performance is a marvel to behold, as he alternates between unbridled machismo and moments of great compassion, all courtesy of Robert Towne's profanity-laced script. Be warned, though - these sailors definitely talk like sailors. And Nicholson revels in every minute of it.
Nicholson plays "Bad Ass" Buddusky, a hell-raising lifetime Navy man who's been around long enough to know that he doesn't always have to play by military rules...so long as he doesn't get caught. When the film begins, Buddusky and a fellow lifer named Mulhall (Otis Young) are ordered to transport a nave midshipman named Meadows (Randy Quaid) to a military prison in a distant state. It seems Meadows was caught lifting $40 from a charity box on the base, but had the misfortune of choosing the admiral's wife's pet charity. So poor Meadows gets the book thrown at him, receiving eight years in jail and a dishonorable discharge for his petty theft.
At first, the sailors are shocked by the sentence, but they roll with the absurdity of Navy existence and proceed to lug their handcuffed ward, via bus and train, to the looming prison. However, both Buddusky and Mulhall slowly befriend Meadows, who's as sweet and optimistic as they are grizzled. Before long, Buddusky takes pity on the kid and decides to force-feed him the life that he'll miss while rotting away in a prison cell, a decision that doesn't always sit well with Mulhall. This leads to a string of often hilarious, sometimes tender, testosterone-charged activities. It also causes a seismic shift in Buddusky's consciousness, as he comes to recognize that he's lived most of his life in a prison of his own making. Buddusky and Mulhall must also wrestle with the knowledge that, eventually, they must deliver Meadows to the brig.
Outside of Nicholson, the real star of The Last Detail is Towne's profane, heartbreaking screenplay. Until this point, Towne was mainly known as a virtuoso script doctor, a hired gun who could put an un-credited polish on somebody else's work until it shined like a newly-cut diamond. His re-tooling of both Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and The Godfather (1972) were poorly-kept secrets in movie circles, and most people felt that he would one day deliver a stunning screenplay of his own. Nicholson, who had known Towne for years, already had him lined up to pen a re-make of the John Garfield melodrama, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). But when that film fell through, both Nicholson and Towne elected to do The Last Detail (Nicholson would later make The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981) for director Bob Rafelson with David Mamet writing the screenplay). Nicholson, it should be noted, also passed on the role that Robert Redford eventually played in The Sting (1973) in order to do The Last Detail.
Given the iconoclastic nature of the script's main character, Nicholson and Towne couldn't have asked for a better collaborator than director Hal Ashby. Ashby was, by anyone's standards, about two steps away from being a straight-up hippie, a shaggy-haired, bearded man whose previous film, Harold and Maude (1971), was too eccentric and bizarre for mainstream audiences and was written off as a failure at the time. Nicholson, Towne, and Ashby knew that Darryl Ponicsan's source novel was a richly metaphorical piece that would allow them to comment on the rift in American society between the innocents and the good ol' boys who were beginning to fear the rumblings of the youth movement. It would be an understatement to say that they made the most of what they were given.
The film they delivered to Columbia Pictures is a marvel of small details, colorful language, and utterly believable character development, which cumulatively pack a real emotional wallop. The dour atmosphere is also helped immensely by the washed-out look of the film, courtesy of Michael Chapman, who would go on to shoot both Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980). (Chapman briefly appears in The Last Detail as a friendly cabbie.)
There's a sad note about the casting of The Last Detail. From the moment he read the book, Nicholson wanted his dear friend, Rupert Crosse, to play Mulhall, and looked forward to verbally jousting with him on the big screen. But Crosse became ill with cancer, and died of the disease in March of 1973. As it stands, Nicholson's Buddusky tends to overshadow Mulhall, even though Young is nothing short of solid. However, the film may have played as more of an overt buddy picture had Crosse been able to fill the role.
Director: Hal Ashby
Producer: Gerald Ayres
Screenplay: Robert Towne (based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan)
Cinematography: Michael Chapman
Music: Johnny Mandel
Editing: Robert C. Jones
Production Design: Michael Haller
Costume Design: Ted Parvin
Cast: Jack Nicholson (Buddusky), Otis Young (Mulhall), Randy Quaid (Meadows), Clifton James (Chief Master-at-Arms), Michael Moriarty (Marine Duty Officer), Carol Kane (Young Whore), Luana Anders (Donna), Kathleen Miller (Annette), Nancy Allen (Nancy), Gerry Salsberg (Henry), Don McGovern (Bartender).
by Paul Tatara