The Last Detail, featuring what may be the quintessential Jack Nicholson performance, has arrived on Blu-ray from Twilight Time with an exceptional transfer by Sony. It is that rare film which is both very funny and gut-wrenchingly tragic.
The Production: 5/5
U.S. Navy First Class Signalman “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) is a “lifer” – i.e., a career sailor – who is in transit at the Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia, waiting for orders to his next duty station. Being in transit is the Navy’s version of Limbo. Buddusky doesn’t know where he is going next or how long he will be stuck in Norfolk. He is napping, both disheveled and unshaven, in the recreation room of his barracks when he is summoned to the office of the Master-at-Arms (Clifton James). Also called to MAA’s office is First Class Gunner’s Mate “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young). Buddusky and Mulhall reluctantly comply, dreading that they are going to be given a “shit detail.”
Much to their surprise, they have been assigned to be “chasers,” Navy lingo for prisoner escorts. A young Seaman named Meadows (Randy Quaid) was caught trying to steal $40.00 from a polio contributions box. Meadows has been given a very harsh sentence – eight years in the Navy prison in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and a dishonorable discharge – because polio prevention is the favorite charity of the Commanding Officer’s wife. The MAA assures Buddusky and Mulhall that they have drawn a plum assignment, because they have a week to complete the detail and they can visit D.C., New York, and Boston on their way. Buddusky then tells Mulhall that they can get Meadows to Portsmouth in two days and then have a good time while taking five days to return to Norfolk.
Meadows is a rather pathetic sight. A tall, hulking man, he nevertheless is soft-spoken and resigned to his fate, notwithstanding the fact that his punishment is entirely out of proportion to his crime. The three sailors board a Greyhound bus, where they take the back seat and Buddusky removes Meadows’ handcuffs. A while later Meadows mysteriously produces candy bars from his pea coat jacket. He claims that he has had them all along but, when they arrive at a railroad station to catch a train to Washington, Meadows steals food from a snack bar and from a woman pushing a shopping cart. Clearly, the young sailor is a kleptomaniac. He confides to Buddusky and Mulhall that he didn’t even need the $40 that he attempted to steal. It just happened to be there and he couldn’t help himself. He also is so meek that he won’t complain about being served a cheeseburger on which the cheese isn’t melted.
Buddusky begins to feel sympathy for Meadows, and Mulhall reluctantly goes along when Buddusky wants to show their prisoner a good time before he is delivered to prison. Buddusky decides that they should make a side trip to Camden, New Jersey so Meadows can say goodbye to his mother, but when they arrive she isn’t home. If Meadows is disappointed, he doesn’t show it. “I don’t know what I would have said to her anyway,” he says with resignation. A series of adventures and misadventures takes place in D.C., New York City and Boston, including one hilarious scene when Buddusky confronts a group of Marines in a men’s room at Penn Station. In order to get the joke you need to know that Navy dress blue uniform trousers for enlisted men have a flap with thirteen buttons instead of a zipper. The fun is tempered by the fact that all three sailors know that in a few days Meadows is scheduled to end up in a very bad place.
The Last Detail opened approximately three years after I completed a four-year hitch in the U.S. Navy. I can vouch for the authenticity of the drab Navy buildings, the uniforms, the profane language, the bawdy behavior, and the disdain which sailors had for Marines (and vice-versa). The brilliant screenplay by Robert Towne, based upon a novel by Darryl Ponicsan, earned him an Academy Award nomination and a BAFTA award. The film is expertly directed by Hal Ashby, whose credits include Harold and Maude, Shampoo, and Bound for Glory.
Nicholson and Quaid deservedly received Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively, and Nicholson won Best Actor awards from BAFTA and at the Cannes Film Festival. Nicholson is so good that I checked his biography to see if he actually served in the Navy (he didn’t, but he was in the Air National Guard). Otis Young turns in a fine performance as Mulhall, who fears that Buddusky is going to get him in trouble by screwing up the detail. The excellent supporting cast includes Carol Kane, Luana Anders, Nancy Allen, and Michael Moriarty, and Gilda Radner has a few lines of dialogue.
Although The Last Detail is set in the early 70s, the war in Vietnam doesn’t come up until the three sailors find themselves at a small party in New York. When Mulhall is asked by a young woman how he felt about being sent to Vietnam, he simply responds “The man says go, you gotta do what the man says.” Her response is, “Oh, wow.” There is no hostility toward the sailors, but the disconnect between them and the civilians is plain to see.
The Last Detail is a superb film, and its reputation has only grown over the years. However, the dialogue is extremely profane – not in a gratuitous way, because that is how sailors spoke – so those who are offended by such language have been warned. For everyone else this Blu-ray is highly recommended. It is a stark reminder that if you try to help someone, be certain that you are not doing more harm than good.
3D Rating: NA
The 1.85 1080p image is delivered via the AVC codec, and since it comes from Sony it is flawless. The daytime action takes place in winter under mostly overcast skies. There is excellent detail and the film grain is natural. The outstanding exterior cinematography by Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Fugitive) was shot on location in Virginia, D.C., New York, Boston, and New Hampshire (the scene of the three sailors running through Penn Station was actually shot at Union Station in Toronto). Robert A. Harris notes that some people may complain about a lack of shadow detail, but he says that this was intentional and it gives the film a very gritty look. His complete comments can be found here:
The English 1.0 DTS HD-MA audio superbly recreates the way The Last Detail sounded in theaters. The dialogue is clear and understandable (perhaps too clear for some viewers!), and ambient sounds are very natural. The musical score is by Johnny Mandel and it fits the film nicely. The score also includes such familiar patriotic tunes as “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” and “Anchors Aweigh.” The latter song, incidentally, is the music that I marched to in Navy Boot Camp, so it makes we want to walk in step every time I hear it.
Special Features: 2.5/5
The film’s original theatrical trailer is included on this Blu-ray, and it is in excellent condition. It focuses on the happier aspects of the film.
The isolated score track is available in DTS HD-MA stereo.
Also enclosed is an eight-page booklet containing a typically informative and insightful essay about The Last Detail by Julie Kirgo. I disagree with her on one point. She writes that Buddusky hates the Navy, “but can’t think of anything better to do.” I believe that Buddusky loves the Navy, particularly when he is doing what he is trained to do, which is to be a signalman on a ship at sea. What he hates is being in transit and being assigned to “shit” details which have nothing to do with his skills. Everyone that I knew in the Navy griped regularly, whether they were lifers or considered themselves civilians in uniform, but all of the lifers were happy to make the Navy a career.
During my last year at sea I kept a notebook – which I still have – in which I wrote down a record of the various indignities that enlisted men had to put up with every day. Although a career in the Navy wasn’t for me, I anticipated that in the future I would think of my time in the Navy more fondly, and I wanted to be sure that I would never forget what I disliked about it. However, the men who re-enlisted time and again were willing to put up with those indignities because they felt that they were doing important work which sometimes was quite exciting and invigorating. None of them, however, liked being assigned to a “shit” detail.
The Last Detail is a gem of a film which will delight anyone who is not offended by the salty, profane language. This Blu-ray has been released in a limited edition of 3,000 copies, so readers who are interested in purchasing it should go to the Twilight Time website or the Screen Archives website to verify that copies are still available.
Buy The Last Detail from Twilight Time Movies .