The Last Detail

Hal Ashby, 1973

Hal Ashby has always remained a polarizing figure, with a catalogue of films that divide audiences, from Harold and Maude, to The Slugger's Wife. At the culmination of his career, he directed The Last Detail, a comedy/drama, starring Jack Nicholson, with a screenplay written by Robert Towne (Bonnie and Clyde, Chinatown). It follows two swabbies, as they escort a young Randy Quaid to Portsmouth naval prison N.H. Any comparison to previous naval movies (Anchors Aweigh, On The Town), have to be dismissed, as the film, with a backdrop against the Vietnam War, features strong existentialist, and almost nihilistic themes, with characters struggling to come to terms with their assigned roles, and ultimately, life in general.

Nicholson's "Badass" Buddusky, surpasses a strong cast, as a charismatic maximalist, whose objective, above and beyond his assignment, is to provide a no holds barred bon-voyage for Quiads character, 'Meadows'. Otis Young supports, as Nicholson's stony-faced shore-patrol partner "Mule" Mulhall, and remains the voice of reason between the uncontrollable, hurricane "Badass", and the vulnerable 'Meadows'. The movie plays out like a coming-of-age/road movie, with Buddusky and Mulhall taking meadows on a crash-course of manhood, exposing him to drinking, fighting and fucking, and showing him the freedom he’s shortly going to lose.

There's a definite hard edge to the movie, and it walks a fine line between comedy, and becoming a full-blown drama. Michael Chapman's cinematography expertly drains the life out of each frame, abandoning the contrast of gloss and grittiness that is apparent in his other work (Raging Bull, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and stripping the movie down to a harsh, grim aesthetic, that more than lends itself to the photography of Arthur Fellig's pseudonym ‘Weegee’, and the dark lighting techniques of Gordon Willis. The Last Detail is arguably the definitive Jack Nicholson performance, with him throwing as much magnetism and charm into 'badass', as he does 'Randle Patrick McMurphy' or 'J.J. Gittes'. In fact all performances are perfect, and show Nicholson and Quaid in their prime, before they became typecast and subsided into self-caricature.

The movie itself could be seen as a left-wing metaphor for the Vietnam War: a group of men working for the armed services, being assigned a pointless objective, with no positive outcome. This is unsurprising, considering Hal Ashby's filmography (Coming Home, Harold and Maude) and his outspoken views on the Vietnam conflict. Ultimately this movie remains of it's time, and is a window into the life of desultory blue-collar workers during the cold war, showing the harsh, grim reality of working class life. Ashby was a Hollywood outsider, a rebel against the mainstream, and held a sheer refrain from being pigeonholed into a certain style or genre.’ The Last Detail was him at the pinnacle of his career, with his directorial work gradually declining into obscure films and TV work.
words by danny walker.