The Last Detail

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THE LAST DETAIL—-great little story, directed by Hal Ashby in 1973, about two career sailors (Jack Nicholson and Otis Young) who have to escort a third swabbie, 18 and naive as they come (Randy Quaid), to Portsmouth Naval Prison, where he is to spend eight years for stealing $40. On the way from Norfolk to New Hampshire, the vets decide to ‘educate’ their clue-absent charge.

Adapted from Darryl Ponicson’s 1970 novel *, Robert Towne’s script is proudly profane, salty as it should be (breaking, at the time, the screen record for use of the word “fuck”), and Johnny Mandel’s merrily martial music is appropriate, echoing with irony against swagger. Despite many funny bits, it’s hardly a happy tale, but one about men who’ve wasted their lives, and the natural-light cinematography adds a somewhat documentary sense to the gloom.

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There are good pieces of work from Clifton James and Michael Moriarity. Young is competent, but in fairness to him, his role is designed as basically that of straight man for Quaid and Nicholson to play off.**

Quaid, 22, had appeared, briefly, in only two features, The Last Picture Show and What’s Up Doc?  Towne’s comment on Ashby’s casting of the hulking Quaid: “”There’s a real poignancy to this huge guy’s helplessness that’s great.” As perfectly hangdog pathetic and naturally comic as Quaid is, he and the rest of the film are overshadowed by Nicholson, at his maniacal best as the barely controllable signalman they call ‘Badass’.  After warming up his cynical edge and temper tantrum ability in Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, this role was a perfect lock. Few actors have been more adept at throwing a fit and getting belly-laughs out of it.

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With Carol Kane and Luana Anders. Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner debuted in small bits. Small budgeted at $2,300,000, the rowdy detail drew universal praise from reviewers and Nicholson fans added their $14,380,000 worth of appreciation.  Oscar nominates ensued for Actor (Nicholson), Supporting Actor (Quaid) and Screenplay. The running time is 104 minutes.

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*The same year this movie came out Ponicson wrote the screenplay off another of his books, also with a Navy background, Cinderella Liberty.  Apart from nine novels under his own name, he also writes mysteries under the alias Anne Argula. His screenplays include those for Taps and Nuts.  In 2005, he penned a sequel to The Last Detail, “Last Flag Flying”, which follows up on the three characters thirty years later. Rumor lately circulates that director Richard Linklater may be tackling that, with Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne: a worthy arrangement.

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** Otis Young, a Marine at 17, serving during the Korean War, later became active in the anti-war movement during the Vietnam fiasco. A spotty acting career gave way to becoming a professor, an acting teacher and a minister. Though he did co-star with Don Murray in The Outcasts a one-season western, this film is the acting job he’s best remembered for. He drew the part after Rupert Crosse, who had recently won as Oscar nomination for The Reivers, withdrew upon diagnosis with terminal cancer. Otis Young passed away in 2001, age 69.

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