Last Detail, The (Blu-ray Review)1 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via ScreenArchives.com
Stars Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James.
“I AM the $&@#-ing shore patrol” has to be one of the most prototypical lines Jack Nicholson ever delivered on screen, artfully employing the adjectival form of what my father used to call the “Marine Corps verb” — even if this is, truth to tell, a movie about U.S. Navy lifers. In fact, the few Marines portrayed come off rather goonishly here, which is why the ex-drill instructor who sired me had at least one major reservation about a sleeper screen success he was otherwise wired to like (and mostly did). For those needing context about Jack’s rant, it comes about because a cracker bartender won’t serve a beer to an underage klepto prisoner (Randy Quaid) on his way to serve eight years in the brig. And it’s typical dialogue from a script that, at the time, was among the most profane in memory until Nancy Dowd’s for Slap Shot materialized four years later.
The richly episodic story, adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, deals with two longtime seamen (Nicholson and Otis Young) on a detail they loathe: transporting prisoner Quaid from Norfolk to New Hampshire by way of stop-offs that would seem to have potential for mayhem (Washington, New York, Boston). Striving to make a little something out of nothing, they elect to milk their per diem for several days drinking anything but milk (Schlitz seems to be a favorite) — all the while being depressed about the situation. This is because sad-sack Quaid has drawn his beyond-the-pale sentence for unsuccessfully trying to steal $40 from a polio charity collection box — the favorite cause, wouldn’t you know, of the CO’s Mrs.
Not to claim that this is The Revenant or anything, but I haven’t seen too many movies that capture frigid temperatures the way this one does. Michael Chapman shot it for his first credit as DP (Taxi Driver wasn’t too far off), and its intentional bleakness is perfectly captured by Twilight Time’s rendering, one whose conscious intention is not to be anyone’s pretty thing. Late in the movie, a children’s playground comes to look like a fresh variation on living hell, with snow on the ground and that feeling of cold metal on your behind. Travelling light, the trio doesn’t seem to have made topcoats a major consideration, and every city and town they visit seems bleaker than the last.
For someone with the initiative to have attempted a cheeky robbery, poor, pitiful Quaid rarely asserts himself even he’s been wronged, so Nicholson and his less obstreperous partner try to get the lad to take the bull by the horns when someone has wronged him (as when a club-car meal hasn’t been prepared just so). This even extends to the duo’s attempts to get Quaid laid — first at a party where Nicholson’s own attempts to seduce a pre-breakthrough Nancy Allen are hysterically funny and then in a brothel that wouldn’t rate too many stars in anyone’s published tour guide (their taxi driver gets a kickback from the madam).
The script and direction are purely A-team — or by creative talents who were just beginning to become A-team. The screenwriter was Robert Towne, which is about a revered as you can get, a year and change pre-Chinatown. The director was Oscar-winning former editor Hal Ashby, who’d later score a much bigger commercial hit off of Detail director Towne’s screenplay for Shampoo. Perhaps befitting Ashby’s editing room experience, the movie looks and feels patched together, which may have been intentional, though the result plays very well regardless of the filmmaking methodology. Uniformly well acted (including a great bit at the end by Michael Moriarty that I’d forgotten), this is undiluted “Jack” all the way — not that anyone would ever want to add a can of water and stir. According to some of Julie Kirgo’s zestiest Twilight Time liner notes, this is Nicholson’s favorite career performance, and if any actor was ever born to play a character whose nickname is “Badass,” we don’t have to spend a whole lot of time thinking of anyone else.
Even so, Columbia (having a bad ’73, thanks to the only George Kennedy musical, Lost Horizon) sat on the picture for a very long time before releasing it — giving Detail a brief L.A. opening in December for an Oscar-qualifying run and then submitting it to Cannes the next year. When the dust cleared, Nicholson had taken best actor at Cannes, while he, Quaid and Towne snagged Oscar nominations. Later, because the film didn’t open in New York until early ’74, it shared the glory with that year’s Chinatown when the National Society of Film Critics voted Nicholson best actor for both pictures.