The Last Detail is a feather in the cap for the writing/acting team of real life buddies Robert Towne and Jack Nicholson. Nicholson could do no wrong at this time in the early 1970s (he even turned down The Sting to make this). You feel privileged watching him here- his level of confidence in 1973 surprises. I mean he really came on the scene in 1969 with Easy Rider– so for him to have the ability to just take over here, just a few years later… quite a feat.
Robert Towne is one of those writers talked about often, and he notoriously was a script-doctor on a lot of projects, but if you look at his actual resume, this is really his best work after 1974’s Chinatown (also with Jack of course).
Hal Ashby’s accomplishment here is a little lesser. His run from 1970-1979 is nearly as strong as Jack’s but he takes a back seat here for the most part. However, The Last Detail is exceptionally well edited (Ashby’s background is in editing- he won the Oscar for editing in 1967 with In the Heat of the Night). Here Ashby uses these meditative dissolves perfectly (helping the subtext).
This leads me to one of the film’s big misses. The big band military score by Johnny Mandel is a small disaster. If you combine these dissolves with something different- you have a markedly better movie.
“I wouldn’t shit you- you’re my favorite turd”. When the film did poorly financially, it was remarketed and released as a comedy—accentuating lines like that, the swearing, the drinking (there are like 30+ PBR’s and Schlitz cans in one mise-en-scene arrangement). It is almost like that score was tacked-on after, in that effort.
The cast of The Last Detail consists of the trio of Jack Nicholson (as “Badass” Buddusky), Otis Young and the 23-year old Randy Quaid as, the baby-faced, naïve Meadows. These are rich, complex characters. Nicholson and Young’s character are taking Quaid’s Meadows to do an eight-year sentence for attempting to steal $40. He says, “they’re my best friends” and this sort of a road-trip (trains, buses) is really just a sort of coming-of-age tale (drinking, sex) bachelor party for the young Meadows with Nicholson (in all his glory) playing the tour guide.
It isn’t just the characterizations- the dialogue is sharp and often hilarious. Anti-authoritarian text and subtext. One of Nicholson’s most famous moments in his career is the diner scene in Five Easy Pieces with the waitress and getting the order the way he wants it. The Last Detail (again, Nicholson and Towne are buddies) plays off that with Nicholson’s character teaching Quaid how to order to get things the way he wants (first melting the cheese, then in a later scene, after he has learned to do it on his own, ordering eggs).
Scorsese’s work and many others would surpass this, but The Last Detail was famous/infamous for being the most iterations of the f-word at the time of the release. The language was quite controversial.
Again, every line is either riotous humor or a stinging speech by Nicholson.
It is a constant throughout (and Ashby’s main contribution to the film outside of one really nice composition of the three leads at different depths of field at the park picnic tables in winter- above)- but one highlight with the dissolve editing is at the 48-minute mark with Young’s character telling off Nicholson’s character.
@Drake-Have you seen seen Cinderella Liberty(1973)? It is based on the same source material as The Last Detail. Got nominated in several categories at the oscars. The score is absolutely brilliant. And there was a great use of the split diopter. I also loved the opening credits with the ship sailing away and also the closing credits. The acting is great overall too. The only nitpick has to be the beliveability of the story I guess.
@Anderson- I have not seen this one yet.