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IT'S FITTING THAT the making of this 1973 film about unjust authority was delayed by a struggle with studio executives. Screenwriter Robert Towne fought for two years to preserve the coarse seamen's speech of Darryl Ponicsan's novel, in which two swabs deliver a prisoner to the brig. But while Towne and Columbia Pictures squabbled, Jack Nicholson made Five Easy Pieces and Carnal Knowledge, and we became used to hearing him swear like a sailor in the calculating bastard roles that came to define his career.
THE LAST DETAIL
directed by Hal Ashby with Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and Randy Quaid runs January 12- 18 at Grand Illusion
Given five days to transport their prisoner, Nicholson's cocksure Billy Budduskey quickly determines that they can deliver him sooner and get three days of liberty with the poor sap's extra pay. But when their charge, Meadows (Oscar-nominated Randy Quaid), turns out to be an 18-year-old kleptomaniac whose eight-year sentence came from stealing $40 from the favorite charity of his CO's wife, Budduskey relents. Bristling at the harsh punishment, he's determined to show the kid a last good time first.
Like two of director Hal Ashby's later films, Shampoo and Being There, Detail makes a dark, comic statement on the politics of its time. The trio's meandering up the Eastern seaboard, getting the kid drunk and laid (with Carol Kane as a hooker), is quickly revealed as a Vietnam-laden morality tale.
Budduskey rails at the unfairness and insists that Meadows should hate them. "I can't get mad at someone for doing his job," the kid explains. As Budduskey's partner, the black Mulhall (Otis Young) is used to injustice, and his instinct for self-preservation leads him to conclude, "When the man says to go, you go." Budduskey needles the boy for an instance of when he got mad, and when Meadows provides one, he grins thirstily, "Whaddja do? Did you coldcock him?" His agitated spurs, between pitying trips to the ice rink and snowbound picnics, all make little difference; when Meadows does get enough juice to attempt an escape, his flight is thwarted with unsettling viciousness.
One year after The Last Detail, Towne and Nicholson's Chinatown gathered more attention and Oscars, bumping this masterfully scripted, low-budget film to cult status and rare viewing. While some elements hold up poorly (Ashby's dreamy montage experiments, in particular), the subject of living with arbitrary rules is as timeless as when Herman Melville explored it in Billy Budd. (Billy Budduskey, get it?) Towne was right to battle the powers that be for his screenplay. It was one worth fighting for.