Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973)

The little film. Overshadowed at the Academy Awards, Hal Ashby's The Last Detail (1973) had three collaborators up for a nomination (the credibility and weight of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, I leave to you). According to Amazon, specifically its editorial review by Dave McCoy, Jack Nicholson's performance as "Bad Ass" Buddusky was "overshadowed" by some of Nicholson's other performances in the 1970s; although according to the Internet Movie Database, specifically its reference to Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, Nicholson's performance in The Last Detail ranks the highest (the credibility and weight of Amazon, The Internet Movie Database, and Premiere Magazine, I leave to you). According to the Wikipedia entry, The Last Detail's other collaborator up for a nomination, Robert Towne, adapted a screenplay which was initially met with studio pause and trepidation for its litany of profanity but later celebrated (or rather sold) for its expletives: "No *#@!!* Navy's going to give some poor **!!@* kid eight years in the #@!* brig without me taking him out for the time of his *#@!!* life." (the poster tagline for The Last Detail; the credibility and weight of Wikipedia and Columbia Studios, I leave to you). The Last Detail's final collaborator up for a nomination, the baby-faced and relatively inexperienced Randy Quaid, as Meadows, was either a big risk or a perfect piece of casting. Hal Ashby's contribution perhaps was downplayed and not least of all, the performance by Otis Young as "Mule" Mulhall is often overshadowed/shined/looked by popular trivia tidbit, the "Before They Were Famous Small Roles" of Gilda Radner, Nancy Allen, Carol Kane, and Michael Moriarty. Yet, for whatever reason (standout performance, bold script, etc.) The Last Detail is one of the finest American films of the 1970s, period. But which?Robert Towne's fine screenplay of The Last Detail, adapted from a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, has as its narrative the story of three sailors: two "lifers," Navy careermen, Buddusky (Nicholson) and Mulhall (Young), who are interrupted from his quiet sleeping and ironing, respectively, by an order of the "MAA" (Master-at-Arms). The "detail" (or "shit detail," as Mulhall likes to point out) is to escort recently-convicted Meadows (Quaid) from their Norfolk base to the prison in Portsmouth. Eighteen-year-old Meadows attempted to steal forty dollars from the "old man's old lady's" charity fund and received a "DD," dishonorable discharge, and eight years in prison. The duo has five days to deliver Meadows (we're talking "per diem," here, says Buddusky, so the two attempt to make the journey worth their while). The Last Detail then begins, as a series of episodes in various cities and their locales on the way to Portsmouth. There are scenes of the trio in a bus, in a bus station, on a train, in a train station, in the train station's bathroom, in restaurants, in a train's dining car, in an arcade, in an adult bookstore, in a whorehouse, in an alley, on the streets, and in Meadows's childhood neighborhood. Not to forget a very long sequence where the trio are in their underwear in a hotel room, getting drunk and chatty. The five-day order of the detail, ending with the delivery of Meadows at the prison, creates an inherent ending to the narrative. At its most basic story level, The Last Detail is a "plot-driven" film, but not a plot, in the traditional sense, really worthy of admiration. No circumstances of intricate development are explored to create the sense of intrigue or the unexpected for the viewer or any intricate webs of various storylines which all converge to an apex, where everything is revealed as neat or tidy and consistent. A chronicle of five days is hardly a strong plot framework in cinema, not least of all in 1973 (see George Roy Hill's The Sting (1973)).The Last Detail is also not a traditional "character-driven" film, where the film's characters create situations from their own actions and then have to make choices which drives their storylines (see Sidney Lumet's Serpico (1973) and George Lucas's American Graffitti (1973)). Also, in the traditional "character-driven" film, it is the character(s), rather than the plot, which experiences the acts and the arcs, ending with not a climax but a revelation or an epiphany. The fates of the characters in The Last Detail are determined from the beginning: one of the trio is going to end up in prison, and the other two are still going to be "lifers." While the pair of Buddusky and Mulhall walk away from the prison, at the end of the film, the attitude towards the "shit detail" hasn't really changed and both are eventually going back to Norfolk. As for Meadows, sitting in his new cell, he will have a lot of time to think about whether he has accepted his fate.
So what about the performances? Nicholson's "Bad Ass" Buddusky, shown in the opening scenes asleep and waking up grumpy when the sailor arrives with orders from the MAA, enjoys the predictable and secure routine of Navy life but also loves just cutting up and being mischievous and fun. Likewise Nicholson's performance is a reflection of this character: often he patiently speaks to Meadows, as if talking to a big child, then gives Meadows a corresponding look to Meadows's answer, as if a big child gave a predictably dumb answer. In certain scenes, Nicholson's Buddusky becomes amazingly animated, for example, when he pulls his pistol on a bartender for refusing to serve Meadows a beer or when he uses the bathroom in a train station only to have the opportunity to pick a fight with some Marines. Don't you ever just get angry? asks Buddusky. Sometimes, answers Meadows. Buddusky is seemingly not a complex character but a dual-sided one, and Nicholson's performance has two volumes, quiet and loud. Baby-faced Quaid, as Meadows, towers over Nicholson and Young. His large stature really reinforces his most glaring character trait as a big child. Quaid cries quite a bit in The Last Detail and keeps his chin down, shrugs his shoulders, and often mumbles quietly. Young's Mulhall never really gets emotional: he plays his character as one who is grateful for his Navy career. Mulhall occasionally may be diverted by Buddusky on a small frolic or detour but Mulhall's got a job to do and is going to complete the "shit detail."If you couldn't tell by now (unless you knew me personally), I am being a complete asshole towards Hal Ashby's The Last Detail. The script, the direction, the authentic locations, and the performances, and about everything else, are all worthy of the highest admiration available. The spiritual glue (keep chanting) that keeps everything together is The Last Detail's overwhelming sense of genuineness and sincerity. From feeling the harsh snowy cold as the trio eat grilled hot dogs from sticks to the telling look on Nicholson and Young's faces as Meadows is quickly shuffled upstairs by two marines, The Last Detail feels so very real. In one particular scene, for whatever reason, had me laughing aloud. The screen becomes black, as Meadows turns off the lamp, and the trio goes to bed (in very close proximity to each other) and deliver this exchange:
Meadows: Bad Ass?
Buddusky: What the fuck is it now, Meadows?
Meadows: If you're Catholic, do you think it's sacrilegious to chant?
Buddusky: Did it get you laid?
Meadows: No.
Buddusky: Then, Meadows, what the fuck do you want to go on chanting for?
Mulhall: Chant your ass off, kid. But any pussy you get in this world you're going to have to pay for, one way or another.
Buddusky: Hallelujah.
Just the actors' voices. In one of the film's most heartfelt scenes, Buddusky and Mulhall take Meadows to see his mother. Upon arrival, the three learn that she has taken a day trip and is gone. Buddusky suggests that at the least, Meadows should wait inside "his own house." Buddusky pushes open the door and with one cinematic glance at the interior, Ashby paints a powerful portrait of Meadows's childhood and upbringing. The Last Detail is filled with unassuming and unexpected touches of emotional vulnerability. As Carol Kane, as the young prostitute to whom Meadows loses his virginity, sits with her hair covering her nude body, she allows Meadows to gently stroke her arm and the side of her thigh. "I have a very good body," she says. "Not a great one but a very good one." She shares one of her supposed shortcomings after Meadows shares one of his. The driving emotional force of the film is the total inequity of Meadows's sentence compared with his crime. Nicholson delivers to Young, with his head snuggled as far into his collar as possible out in the snow, that this poor kid is going away for a long time and there's nothing they can do about it. Nicholson, with seemingly little effort, conveys in a small exchange the love the two have developed for Meadows. When the final fifteen minutes or so begins in The Last Detail and Buddusky says, "We don't have to be there until eighteen hundred," the viewer doesn't want this detail to end or to see these three characters split up.
A master artist is one who is able to craft characters, despite their flaws, actions, or shortcomings, who every viewer comes to love. Ashby, Towne, and the actors all deliver. Mightily. Finally, the biggest "fuck you" isn't delivered within any dialogue in The Last Detail but with the film's completion by its collaborators: they all made a film that they wanted to make regardless of its reception (a favorite here on this blog and its credibility and weight, I leave to you).


Mr.LargePackage said...

This is a great entry into an already stellar catalogue. On a side note, it is completely immoral to chant, even if it gets you laid. (If this comment is large and in charge, I leave to the viewer).

Hans A. said...

Once again, Mr.LP, you one-up me. Thnx for the tip about chanting and the getting laid repercussions.