When I decided to do a run of film appreciation pieces for this site I thought, “Ok, so I need to go through my DVD collection and pick out some favorites that have some kind of crime/suspense angle to them.” That wasn’t hard to do and it’s really not all that limiting. And of course, one of the great things about Criminal Element is the wide range of film, fiction, and TV, etc. fare that gets covered here. I knew I could be loose in my interpretations of what movies might be suitable for appreciation posts on the blog. So, the crime involved in the movie I’m about to discuss now – 1973’s The Last Detail – is a laughable offense. But then the triviality of the violation and the ridiculously harsh punishment visited on its offender is a big part of what drives the story.
Before we get into the details of the offense and what happens as a result of it, I just want to say a few words about the book that served as the film’s basis, and its author. In an earlier post here I singled out The Last Detail as an example of a rare instance (IMO) where a movie far outclasses the book it came from. After that piece ran I felt bad about picking on Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel (same title as the film), because it’s really a perfectly good read. So is Ponicsan’s 1973 title Cinderella Liberty, which has a similar theme (foibles of life in the U.S. navy for enlisted men), and which was also made into a noted movie. So, sorry Darryl. Your books are aces.
Now, one of the reasons The Last Detail movie stands out so much more than the book is simply the high quality level of the principals involved in its making. It was directed by one of the leading filmmakers of its era (Hal Ashby – Harold and Maude, Being There, Coming Home, etc.), the screenplay was done by one of the best at writing those (Robert Towne – Chinatown, Shampoo, Marathon Man, etc.), and it starred one of finest actors of any era (Jack Nicholson, and do I really need to try and name his most notable film roles?). Throw in Randy Quaid in another main part, plus side roles for the likes of Carol Kane, Gilda Radner, Nancy Allen, and Luana Anders and . . . it really couldn’t miss, could it? It did a lot more than not miss.
So here’s the setup: Quaid plays Larry Meadows: a dumpy, none-too-bright enlisted naval man who happens to be a kleptomaniac (John Travolta tried out for the role but Ashby liked Quaid better to play the endearingly hapless character). The unconscious stealing predilection of Meadows’s has never gotten him into any serious trouble through the first 18 years of his life, but now trouble finds him. He pinches 40 dollars out of a polio contribution box somewhere on the Norfolk, Virginia base where he’s stationed. He gets caught, and it turns out this polio relief fund is a pet project of the do-gooder wife of a supremely high-ranking officer. The woman is enraged that someone would steal that money and she wants the offender to receive the harshest punishment possible. And she gets her wish: Meadows is given an eight-year sentence in the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Yes you heard me right: eight years in prison for lifting 40 bucks. And when he gets out he’ll receive a dishonorable discharge. And you wanna hear the real kicker? He never even got to enjoy the 40 clams, was nabbed before he could even think about going off and spending it.
Nicholson is Billy Buddusky, or “Billy Badass” as he’s known around the base. Buddusky and a similarly enlisted man named Richard “Mule” Mulhall (played by Otis Young) are charged with transporting Meadows to Portsmouth. They’re given a week to get there, they’re armed with pistols and handcuffs, and they get some chits to buy bus and train tickets and food and hotel stays, etc. The officer who gives them their detail encourages them to make stops in Washington, New York, and Boston along the way. Badass and Mule think the sentence Meadows received is b.s. and they feel sorry for the sad sack kid. But at the same time they know the kind of trouble they’ll get into if they let their prisoner escape before they deliver him to the brig. So they seek a middle ground where they look to show Meadows some good times before he starts his prison stint, while at the same time keeping a close eye on him and letting him know they will kill him before they’ll allow him to flee from their grasp.
I fear I’ll spoil things for people who haven’t seen the movie (or read the book) if I start describing the adventures the trio has on their merry (and sometimes not so merry) path from Virginia to New Hampshire. But suffice to say that it’s a heck of a trip, for a variety of reasons. And that when you hear the expression that somebody “cusses like a sailor,” this movie gives some weight to that saying, as these guys have pottymouths the likes of which have rarely been heard on the big screen. Radner has a bit part as a member of a Buddhist group the trio encounters. Anders is a sympathetic bohemian who invites the sailors to a party at her groovy pad, Allen is a pretty young girl Badass puts a move on at the party, and Kane is a hooker with whom Meadows has a foray.
I have to go back here and give some more love to Ponicsan’s novel. One big difference between the book and movie, and one that I have to say favors the book, is the part where Badass and Mule decide to have Meadows spring a surprise visit on his mother in New Jersey. In the movie they get to the house only to find the mom (who is single) gone for the day, and they go inside for a second and see the depressingly unkempt way she keeps house. But in the book she’s home, she and a slovenly man-friend she has around. Both scenes leave the reader/viewer with the same sad feeling, but in the book this part goes a little deeper because you see the way Meadows relates to his loving yet frowsy and hopeless mother, and this offers an added dimension to his character.
There’s a couple things about The Last Detail that work for me on personal levels. I love the on-location filming and love that some of the locales are places I know well. Every time I see the scene at the dumpy Norfolk bus station I kind of nod my head and think, “yep,” me having spent far too much time at that depressing station when in my 20s. And then there’s all the footage shot in Washington, D.C., where I lived for a big chunk of my adult life. Too, I’m a navy brat who is the son of a former enlisted man, so have a little bit of a “yeah, that’s what it’s like,” sensation when following the story of the three seamen.
But those are hardly the only reasons why I love the movie, and The Last Detail is hardly a film that can only be appreciated by someone who feels some personal connection(s) to the story. The movie and its principals came up for countless awards at Cannes, the Oscars, and Golden Globes, and Nicholson took Best Actor at Cannes. It’s one of my top favorites of all Nicholson’s stellar film performances. It’s one of the better movies directed by Ashby the maestro and penned by Towne the gifted screenwriter. The story offers humor, pathos, tension, compelling characters and a plotline that’s the perfect background of a moving tale. Ponicsan gave Ashby, Towne, and the cast some powerful content from which to work, and they made the most of what was there.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.
See all posts by Brian Greene for Criminal Element.