The Last Detail is of course one of quintessential films of the ’70s, directed by the equally quintessential Hal Ashby. Ashby had preceded it with what was then seen as a tremendous flop, Harold and Maude, which has since received the acclaim it deserves. Jack Nicholson had by this point broken through as a bona fide movie star with Five Easy Pieces and Easy Rider, and turned in what may be his best performance in the little seen King of Marvin Gardens. Robert Towne, a friend of Nicholson’s since their Roger Corman days, was on board as screenwriter (Towne, as a writer or script doctor, was responsible for a huge number of memorable 70s films). With this array of talent, making a remarking film was a certainty.
Nicholson and Otis Young play a pair of Navy signalmen, Bad-Ass Buddusky and Mule Mulhall, who have to escort Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Naval prison in Maine. Meadows has been convicted of a minor theft from which he didn’t even get to keep the money, and the Navy escorts decide that the kid should have a chance to live a little during the trip. The film follows them as they take Meadows drinking and to a brothel, amongst other stops along the road.
Supposedly Nicholson considers this film his best part, and he was reportedly upset that he didn’t get the Oscar after winning the Best Actor award at Cannes for the film. It‘s definitely one of the most perfect roles for Nicholson—showy enough, but with the kind of depth that he is also capable of pulling off. Quaid is also very well cast as the naïve Navy kid. Bud Cort also wanted the part, but Quaid’s height and gawkiness fit the boyish role to a tee. Young was the second choice for his part, but frontrunner Robert Cross had terminal cancer and so was unavailable for the production.
The film is really a bromance, and it was a massive game-changer in terms of what you could get away with saying on-screen.The word ‘fuck’and it’s variations is heard 65 times, so shocking at the time that the studio almost didn’t release it (Nicholson’s Cannes award ended their opposition). In fact, the script was finished in 1970 and the studio intervened at that time to convince Towne to tone down the language.
It was shot by Michael Chapman, a last-minute choice of cinematographer. He and Ashby used natural light as much as possible out of necessity due to a small budget, giving it a somewhat documentary style. Chapman would go on to shoot Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and many other great films.
With this excellent combination of writer, director, actor and cinematographer, The Last Detail is funny, moving and almost perfect. The one exception is a score that over-uses a piece of almost comic marching music, which is ironic considering Ashby’s usual excellent choice of film music. It’s one of the great on-screen love stories (non-sexual) between men alongside films like Midnight Cowboy and The Shawshank Redemption.
The disc includes the TV version, which includes some alternative scenes shot to substitute for others where the language wouldn’t be allowed on the small screen; and an interview with Alexander Payne, the director whose films are indebted to this area of ‘70s cinema. (Payne had been slated to direct the sequel, Last Flag Flying, but this project has been taken over by Richard Linklater, with Bryan Cranston in the Nicholson role.) There are also interviews with Michael Chapman and the film’s editor, a promo gallery, the trailer, and a booklet with writing about the film.