Saturday, November 20, 2010

THE LAST DETAIL (1973): Low Budget Classic

The easiest way for a movie to win a best picture Oscar nomination (not to mention award) is to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the movie.  Amadeus, The Color Purple and Titanic were all dull movies, but one couldn’t help but be impressed by the set designs.  A movie that tells a good story is less likely to gain any attention because it’s impossible to plaster the story up on a billboard or make sense of it while watching a two-minute preview.  And sometimes we forget that the actor or actress does not have to be all dolled up to play their part convincingly, though I wouldn’t have been offended to see Kate Winslet’s character succeed in committing suicide by jumping off the boat in her historic duds and save us an additional three hours of melodrama.  So be it.  I could waste another fifty thousand words telling you about all of the low cost movies that surpassed the Oscar winners in everything but the budget.  In that, I could go all the way back to 1932 when the stark looking Scarface was passed up for best picture by the garish Grand Hotel.  Also, in 1973 when The Sting (another lavish period piece) wins seven Oscars and is promptly forgotten the day after the awards were announced, and when The Exorcist is nominated several times by the Academy for its convincing portrayal of the spewing of green phlegm, the two movies I considered best that year, Mean Streets and The Last Detail, were completely ignored.
The budget for The Last Detail had to have been small.  You have three main characters in some navy uniforms that were mostly filmed while riding on a bus or on a train.  You get to see some seedy neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York as well as the inside of a brothel, and you get to see the Portsmouth military base.  We meet Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young), nicknamed “Bad Ass” and “Mule” respectively in a Virginia naval base.  Both are “lifers” and grunts and have little patience for regulations or red tape.  The two of them are ordered to escort eighteen-year old Meadows (Randy Quaid) to New Hampshire where he is to be confined to prison under the watch of marines for eight years.  Meadows crime is a significant one; he’s a kleptomaniac who stole forty dollars from a favorite charity of the wife of an Admiral.  The wife apparently was pretty sore.
Meadows has been beaten up by life.  Mulhall and especially Buddusky feel so sorry for Meadows that they try to provide him with some fun before he’s to serve his sentence.  Buddusky takes Mulhall and Meadows to his favorite restaurants.  In Washington, D.C., Buddusky announces to a bartender that he is the shore patrol after the bartender refuses to serve Meadows a drink (Meadows being underage).  The three go back to the hotel room, get drunk as is possible on 3.2 beer, and Buddusky trains Meadows on how to be a signal man on an aircraft carrier.  Mulhall and Buddusky try to hold a conversation of their own, but they’re unable to finish it while listening to Meadows engaged in the longest urination in movie history.
There’s a side trip taken where the three go to see the house where Meadows grew up.  We don’t meet his mother, but we do find a large number of empty liquor bottles at her home.  They travel onto New York where the three get involved in a scuffle with some marines.  Meadows proves that he can fight by knocking one of the marines down.  They also witness some absurd chanting among a cult that they just happen to stumble upon while wandering the streets.  Meadows proceeds to take up the chanting (much to the irritation of Buddusky and Mulhall) because he’s been told it can bring him great power.  In Boston Meadows is introduced to a hooker (played beautifully by Carol Kane), ejaculates prematurely while the hooker is unzipping his pants, but then takes to her “like a duck to the water” (though they still have to pay the hooker twice).
Finally, they have a picnic in the middle of the winter while grilling some hotdogs; there Meadows, while chanting and having grown to realize the unjust sentence he is about to face, makes a run for it.  Buddusky, feeling enraged and betrayed after all he had done for Meadows, gives him a beating, and they then deliver Meadows to Portsmouth and watch him taken into his cell.  A marine officer berates Buddusky and Mulhall for their treatment of Meadows.  Buddusky and Mulhall refuse to say in defense of themselves that Meadows tried to escape because that would mean more time for Meadows.  Mulhall instead tells the officer what he thinks of him, and Buddusky and Mulhall  leave Portsmouth while feeling like hell.
The movie was made while Nixon ran for reelection in 1972.  During that time, Nixon eliminated the draft and helped lower the voting age to eighteen.  Only Nixon could have foreseen what then happened.  Protests against the Vietnam War ended, young people came out to vote overwhelmingly in support of Nixon, and the Viet Nam war continued to be fought until 1975 (long after Nixon had resigned from office).  The “volunteer” soldiers who continued to fight were mostly poor, had no college education and were assigned the dirty work that their superiors gave them.  Buddusky and Mulhall were soldiers like their counterparts in Viet Nam.  The two were irresponsible and hilariously obscene losers who were trying to do the decent thing.  Still, they had their orders.
 Nicholson and Quaid received Oscar nominations, though Otis Young deserved one as well.  Robert Towne (the screen writer) also deserved to receive an Oscar for Best Screenplay for the dialogue in The Last Detail alone, but that Oscar instead went to The ExorcistThe Last Detail is in my opinion more irreverent and wildly funnier than The Sting.  It presents an intelligent story and gives us three real human beings.  Neither The Sting nor The Exorcist speak to me.  The Sting is escapism in a pretty package, and I’m not sure what person The Exorcist appeals to.
The Last Detail is probably my favorite of “undiscovered” movies.  Why it remains undiscovered with Nicholson and Quaid in leading roles is perhaps because the movie came so early in their careers.  More likely its portrayal of hardboiled and alienated mavericks does not resonate with our delicate critics; the humor is too lowbrow and the characters are not individuals that these movie reviewers ever have to associate with.
August 3, 2006
© Robert S. Miller     2006

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