Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Last Detail


Has this ever happened to you? With a very few films (this one and The Caine Mutiny are the only ones that spring to mind, but there were a few others) my memory of them is that they were black and white movies. I’ve pondered this for a long time. It’s barely possible that the first time I saw them was on a B&W TV … but that seems unlikely. It’s been so long since I owned a B&W set. A slightly more plausible explanation is that these films were both about the military, which has a strong association with the classic B&W films of the Big War. That, and the fact that the military is a fundamentally drab setting. Gray ships, olive-drab uniforms, camouflage paint, khaki. Not a riot of color. This one, even more than Caine, is a very drab picture, shot in the wintertime, using a washed-out color palette. And really, the only striking color in Caine was the deep blue sea, which we didn’t see a lot of.

Just had to mention that.

Jack Nicholson thought this was his best performance. Don’t know if he still thinks that, but at the time he felt he was cheated of an Oscar because the studio had no faith in it, brought it out early in the year. And it’s true, the suits didn’t want to deal with it. It was the language, which was still shocking at the time. Very few sentences don’t contain a “fucker” or a “motherfucker” or two. In fact, the movie was basically shot twice. Once with Robert Towne’s brilliant original dialogue, which he refused to compromise on, and once in a cleaned-up version for the TV market. The ironic thing is that, by the time it was finally released, that sort of language had already become commonplace, that’s how fast the de-Bowdlerization of the movie biz was moving.

Randy Quaid plays a total loser who was caught stealing $40 from the polio box, convicted, and sentenced to eight years in the brig. The polio box! Eight years! It was the admiral’s wife’s favorite charity, so they threw the book at him. It turns out he is a compulsive thief, and has other mental issues. But basically, he’s just a big, dumb kid. Shore patrol petty officers Jack and Otis Young get the shit detail to take him to Portsmouth prison, where it’s clear he will go through a living hell. The two lifers take pity on him and try to show him a good time.

Nobody can play a man with a hair trigger like Jack Nicholson, as everyone will remember from Five Easy Pieces. He’s got a scene just that good with a racist bartender who foolishly says the law says he has to serve Young (who is black), and Jack damn near kills him. And hardly anybody can play a dumb loser like Randy Quaid … and unfortunately it’s beginning to look as if it’s not acting at all. He’s currently in Canada applying for political asylum, claiming a clandestine group called the “Hollywood star whackers” is out to get him. As if you were still a fucking star, Randy! If he tries to reenter the US, he will be arrested, and Canada really has no use for him, either. Ranged against that sort of acting ability, poor Otis Young has to do his best to get noticed, and I’d say he handles it pretty well.

It’s a helluva movie, no kidding. There’s no real plot, it’s just the three of them, by bus and train, hanging in bars, going to some weird Buddhist ceremony, beating up some Marines in a rest room just for the hell of it, then to an apartment in New York where Jack tries all his “smooth” moves on Nancy Allen, who is unimpressed. Of course there is a stop at a whorehouse in Boston where poor Randy squirts all over Carol Kane as soon as she touches him. But he does get laid, and is tender about it, and even fancies the whore sort of liked him. Hold that thought, Randy, it’s gonna have to last you for eight years. The ending is inevitable, and sad, when they get him to the prison. All they can do is walk away from it, bitching about those damn Marines.