The Last Detail Review

As a genre, the road movie suits cinematic convention because of its linear structure. The best road movies usually focus on a one-off journey, whereby the main protagonists are thrown together because of situations outside their control. The journey's destination almost in all cases represents closure; a place whereby the characters go their separate ways and their personal cause vanishes as quickly as a fade out. Take any successful road movie, from Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Last Orders, or even The Straight Story, and it becomes clear that the spiritual awakening characteristic amongst any road movie protagonist occurs whilst embarking on the journey, as opposed to upon reaching the conclusion of this journey. This is despite each protagonist believing that the answer to his or her quest lies at the destination, as opposed to the actual journey.

The Last Detail is a road movie in the best tradition of cinema, and yet it switches the codes of the genre. Young naïve navy boy Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) has been sentenced to eight years in prison after stealing forty dollars from a polio charity collection box. Two navy officers Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Mulhall (Otis Young) are assigned to escort/guard Meadows in transit from a Virginia Naval Base to a New Hampshire Naval Prison. Along the way, the two officers grow an affectionate pity for Meadows, and ensure that his last week of freedom will prove to be a memorable one.

What's so refreshing about Hal Ashby's The Last Detail is the notion that the three main characters of the film are aware from the outside that reaching their 'destination', in this case the prison which will confine Meadows, symbolises almost an instant death of their spiritual journey. They are all too aware that the journey is all they have, and therefore they make the most of it while time is on their side. Usually, a protagonist has to undergo an internal change during a film for it to be deemed a narrative success. What is so unusual about The Last Detail as a road movie is the idea that Buddusky and Mulhall only go through this change upon the ending of the journey. They think they are introducing Meadows to a social and sexual reawakening, but fail to realise that it is they who are having their horizons broadened.

Written for the screen by gifted script-doctor Robert Towne, based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan, The Last Detail effectively balances a gritty ferociousness with uplifting comedy. Director Hal Ashby, one of the best seventies' directors of the counter-Hollywood movement, allows the film to develop at a naturalistic pace. Ashby is confident in his belief not to allow The Last Detail to follow the usual three-act fold-out of a Hollywood movie, and he lets his actors improvise so as the script doesn't seem mere dialogue. The film is infamous for having an abundance of swear words, but after a few sequences you start to feel immersed into the kind-hearted yet ultimately foul-mouthed existence that Buddusky, Mulhall and Meadows have constructed during their journey. The three central performances are superb, fuelled by Jack Nicholson's manic, trademark leader. Nicholson seems to effortlessly understand the nature of his characters, and he renders Buddusky a likeable 'buddy' without pandering to any heroic branding. Subverting both authority and the presence of doom spurred by time, Buddusky is almost a true anti-hero struggling to exist in a world governed rigidly by rules and regulations. He's angry at Meadows' sentence, and he grants him a life-changing week in defiance of the system that condemns Meadows to a life of cruelty and mental torture. Otis Young and Randy Quaid flank Nicholson's gang admirably, and Quaid even found himself an Oscar nomination for playing the simpleton Meadows, who is given a whirlwind tour of life by Buddusky and Mulhall.

The cinematography is drab, edgy and lacking in any striking primary colour. Michael Chapman sucks out the life of the image, toning it down to its barest, harshest reality. The Last Detail doesn't preach that life is great or indeed beautiful, but it does believe that life is better than prison, as if it is the lesser of two evils.

For a film almost homoerotic in its 'buddy' ethos, The Last Detail fits comfortably alongside the best of the road movie genre. Its cult audience is entirely deserved, and although many films have been given the tag, it definitely contains one of Nicholson's finest performances, and a sharp directorial effort from Hal Ashby in what was sadly a limited career. There might not be a light at the end of the tunnel with The Last Detail, but the journey is still worth venturing.

Academy Awards 1973

Academy Award Nominations 1973
Best Actor - Jack Nicholson
Best Supporting Actor - Randy Quaid
Best Adapted Screenplay - Robert Towne

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the transfer is mostly uninspired, with a grainy, dull exterior and a print complete with some obvious blemishes. The gritty visual quality certainly adds a certain something to the film, but this film could clearly be presented better.

Presented in mono, the sound mix is unrefined, with some portions of dialogue sounding rough and inaudible, and many background elements overshadowing the actors' dialogue. Volume level is also quite low, and the range of the mix is lacking in any dramatic structure.

Menu: A static, silent menu featuring a few promotional images from the film.

Packaging: The usual Columbia Tristar template, with a four page production note/chapter listing insert and an amaray casing provided as casing.


A Few Good Men - Trailer: Trailer for Nicholson's other naval film A Few Good Men. Unfortunately the trailer for The Last Detail has not been included.

Filmographies: Brief textual filmographies of the major players of the cast and crew.


An excellent anti-heroic voyage against authority and time, The Last Detail is another excellent low-key classic from the early seventies. Released on a mediocre bare-bones disc, this is purely for fans of the film, but it's still worth a purchase if found at a reasonable price, and Columbia Tristar have at least lowered the RRP.

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