The Last Detail

1973, Movie, R, 103 mins


A grim yet very touching portrait of a trip taken by three men, one of whom is to lose his freedom by journey's end. Two career sailors, Nicholson and Young, are randomly selected to escort Quaid from their West Virginia base to a prison in Massachusetts. Quaid was caught stealing from the polio charity box; since that was the favorite charity of the admiral's wife, he is sentenced to eight years in jail, or a year for every five dollars. Nicholson and Young got a lot more than they bargained for when they were assigned this detail. At first, they think it's just another shore leave with liberty to be enjoyed and lots of carousing. The two hardened sailors are soon won over, however, by Quaid's bumbling ways and the difficulty of his plight. This causes them to take a paternal attitude toward him as they travel from one dim location to another. Only the characters in the film look alive, as everywhere they go appears to have been filtered by pale grays and yellows. Nicholson and Young try to show Quaid a good time before his long stay in the brig. They encounter Anders, who brings them to a Nicheren Shoshu meeting where religious zealots (including Gilda Radner before she became a TV star) chant "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo" and dance happily in their scented environment. Anders next takes Quaid to her room when she learns of his bleak future and tells him that she's going to do something that will be very important. The naive Quaid thinks she's about to seduce him; instead, she begins to chant, which confuses him at first, then leads to a poignant scene later. Nicholson and Young can't make any time with Anders's pals, so it's off to another adventure--this time to a brothel where they offer Quaid a good time with Kane, which they'll pay for. Quaid unsuccessfully tries to escape (while chanting the liturgy Anders taught him), but after an agonizing chase across a frozen park, Nicholson and Young capture him and deliver him to prison. We get the feeling that Nicholson and Young, if their naval careers did not depend on it, would have taken off with Quaid. They try hard not to be emotional as Quaid is escorted up a small staircase to the room where he will spend the rest of his youth.

THE LAST DETAIL is a gritty look at the military life and the people who are attracted to it. It is dark in its message and gray to the eye. Locations are all washed out as though there were a thin membrane of filth spread across everything except the leads, who pop out colorfully like three strawberries in a bowl of Cream of Wheat. This is Nicholson's best work since FIVE EASY PIECES, perhaps because his character seems to be an extension of that film's Bobby DuPea. Ashby's direction is superlative, as is his use of music to help secure the mood. Ashby was able to get Nicholson's least-mannered performance in many a day, after bombs with THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS; A SAFE PLACE; and DRIVE, HE SAID. Ponicsan also wrote the naval-based novel, Cinderella Liberty, which was made into a film the same year. THE LAST DETAIL won no Oscars but did get nominations for Quaid, Nicholson (who lost to Jack Lemmon for SAVE THE TIGER), and Robert Towne for his screenplay. leave a comment

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