Release Date(s)1973 (January 19, 2016)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: N/A
The Last Detail is one of those miraculous films that doesn’t seem to be about much at all but ends up being about everything – at least, everything that was going on in America in the year, 1973, when it was released. Adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel by the greatest screenwriter who ever lived, Robert Towne, it tells the simple story of to Navy lifers (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) ordered to transport a young prisoner (Randy Quaid) to prison after the dimwitted sailor makes the mistake of stealing $40 from the base’s polio fund – unfortunately for him, the favorite charity of the Commanding Officer’s wife. Quaid’s character is given an unconscionably harsh sentence (eight years), but it’s Nicholson and Young’s duty to make sure that he begins it, knowing over the course of the few days they spend with their young charge that his life is essentially over before it’s begun.
The film has little in the way of incident or event or even narrative thrust; Nicholson and Young take Quaid on a series of trains and buses and make a few stops (to Quaid’s childhood home, to a bar run by a racist jerk, to a whorehouse where Quaid loses his virginity in the most poignant, depressing, yet oddly funny manner imaginable), but they don’t do much – they just exist, as Quaid’s devastating fate looms before them. Yet under Hal Ashby’s beautifully restrained direction, the three actors yield insight after insight into human nature, and into the Watergate and Vietnam-induced hangover that was punishing all of America at the time (a theme Towne and Ashby would further explore in collaboration with Warren Beatty on Shampoo two years later). Without forcing the issue, the filmmakers implicitly capture the bleak aimlessness not only of their characters but of an entire country, with the characters’ repetitive vulgarity expressing their almost embarrassing inability to change the broken system of which they are not only are victims but agents.
The movie is ultimately quite sad and almost utterly hopeless, yet it's also hilarious – another testament to the greatness of these filmmakers. All three leads give the performances of their careers, and they get terrific support from Carol Kane, Michael Moriarty, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner (among others) in smaller roles. The complexity of their work is beautifully underlined by the naturalistic cinematography of Michael Chapman, just a few years before his masterful work on Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. Chapman alternates between icy blues and whites and deep, dark blacks and reds to create a cumulative effect of chilly oppression that is well preserved on Twilight Time’s excellent transfer. Though details are occasionally lost in the inky blacks, this is mostly reflective of the theatrical release prints of The Last Detail that I’ve seen. Certainly I’ve never heard the film sound this clear, as the uncompressed monaural soundtrack perfectly captures the rich, natural ambient design of the film. As is standard with Twilight Time releases, the package contains an isolated score track; there are no extra features aside from a theatrical trailer.
- Jim Hemphill