Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Road to Discovery

You know, certain movies stick with you, despite the fact that you only saw it once, and its been years since that.  I used to talk to anyone who would listen about a movie I saw on Showtime once back in 1982.  It was called The Stunt Man,  and despite fact that I had only seen it that one time, I talked about it for 30 years, and FINALLY found a DVD copy of the movie a couple of years ago.

Books and movies.  Books and movies.  About 1979 or 1980, I acquired a paperback copy of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  A great book, but not the subject of this review.  In the back of the book was a list of books you could buy, that were somehow related enough that the publishers thought it might interest the reader of the book they currently were reading.  These weren't detailed synopses, just little blurbs designed to hook you.  There was one that attracted my attention; The Last Detail by Daryl Ponicsan.

It was a very entertaining look into human interaction as two crusty Navy seamen are given a detail to escort a fellow young seaman from the () Naval Base in Virginia to the Portsmouth Naval Prison in New Hampshire.  Along the way, the two older seamen develop a kind of a friendship and kinsmanship with the younger one, who is very naive and inexperienced in life.  It had been made into a movie in 1973 with Jack Nicholson, and had received kudos and nominations for the work by the various awards committees, including 3 Oscar nominations, but I didn't get a chance to see it until late one night in 1983.   I remembered a lot of details from the movie for years, but I only got a chance to see it again this week, after buying a DVD of it.

I have stated before that the competition was fairly stiff that year, especially for Best Actor.  And while I still think, as I stated in a review earlier, that Robert Redford should have won for his performance as Johnny Hooker in The Sting (as opposed to Jack Lemmon in Save the Tiger), Nicholson's performance here was outstanding.  Randy Quaid, who was a newcomer on the scene with this movie, also was nominated as Best Supporting Actor, but lost to John Houseman in The Paper Chase.  The Last Detail ended up being a three time loser at the Oscars because Robert Towne, who also wrote among others Chinatown, was up for one for Best Adapted Screenplay.  That one actually went to The Exorcist...

An interesting note on the casting.  Jack Nicholson was, from the very beginning, going to be cast as Buddusky, of course.  There were some problems there, however, because Nicholson was filming another movie, and the studio pressured the production crew to cast someone else.  Burt Reynolds was one of the suggested ones.  But the producers insisted on waiting for Nicholson.  John Travolta could have been cast as the prisoner, but director Hal Ashby liked the idea of a large guy like Quaid being the milquetoast innocent character better. Also, initially, Rupert Crosse, an Oscar nominee for The Reivers (1969) was going to be cast as Mulhall, but he backed out after being diagnosed with cancer.  (Crosse died the next year, before the movie even reached the theaters.)

The movie version follows the book fairly well.  A few minor changes, probably due to time constraints more than anything else, occurred.  But there is one major difference between the book and the movie, and if you want to read the book, then you should skip to the next paragraph, but this spoiler alert only is about the book. Spoiler Alert!  At the end of the book, the character Nicholson plays gets in a fight after dropping off the kid and is killed, and the character Otis Young plays ends up in Naval prison himself.  But 40 years later Ponicsan wrote a sequel to his novel, Last Flag Flying, jumping off from the movie ending, not his book, because it takes place with Buddusky still alive. That book is scheduled to be release as a movie later this year, which is why I'm doing this movie now, in anticipation of the sequel.

The movie is notable for being one of the first movies released after the relaxing of rules governing language.  The movie is rated R, and it received that rating mostly because of the coarse language used throughout the movie. (The movie poster makes that a part of its draw by quoting the Nicholson character, expletives deleted...)  In its defense, it is a movie about military men, and the language is not egregious in any sense of the word, although some people might find it so.  Definitely not a movie for the prudish viewer, but if you can get past the language, there really isn't much to get uptight about in the film.

It had a few notable early appearances of actors and actresses aside from Randy Quaid.  Carole Kane, who many may remember as Latka Gravas' girlfriend/wife on Taxi, appears as a prostitute.  Gilda Radner (if I have to tell you who she is, you are way too young...) appears as a member of a Buddhist group.  Nancy Allen, notorious as one of the tormentors of Carrie in the Brian DePalma adaptation of Stephen King's novel, appears as an attendee of a party the three attend.  And Michael Moriarty, famous as Asst. D.A. Stone on Law and Order plays a military officer at the prison where the three are going.

The Last Detail (1973)

Petty Officer Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) is awaiting his new orders at Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia when he is called in to see the Master-at-Arms.  So is Petty Officer "Mule" Mulhall.  They get the call and are assigned a detail as "chasers"  to escort a prisoner,

 Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine to serve a term in prison.  Meadows, it seems, tried to steal the polio contribution box at the commissary and was give 8 years and a DD (dishonorable discharge).

The pair have five days to deliver the prisoner. Now the immediate question you could ask is "Five days?  Why not just commandeer a car and drive up there?  It would only take two days even if you stopped over to rest..."  Well, if you did, you wouldn't have much of a movie...  And I'm not an expert on Navy protocol, especially protocol as it was 40+ years ago, so maybe this was standard procedure then.

Anyway, through use of Greyhound buses and trains, the three start out on their journey.  Through early events we gradually come to realize that poor Meadows is a victim of his own psyche; he is a kleptomaniac.  He didn't need the money he tried to steal, it was just a compulsion.  He steals candy and vegetables over the first 15 minutes in the movie and is exposed by the pair when they discover carrots secreted in the sleeves of his coat.

Buddusky gradually warms up to the kid, while Mulhall serves as a conscience of sorts, trying to keep them on the right track.  But Buddusky takes it into his heart to try to show the kid a good time on the trip, considering that Meadows is inexperienced in the seamier side of life (such as getting drunk, getting laid, etc.)  Buddusky first tries to buy the kid a beer in a bar, but since drinking age is 21, the bartender refuses to serve him.

So they buy a couple of six-packs and drink in an alley.  It is the middle of winter, so, after determining that they have missed their connection on the train, they get a hotel room and get even drunker.

The next day, they decide to take Meadows by to see his mother, but mom isn't home.  (Mom was home in the novel, and the scenes that could have been in the movie from here would have been interesting, but be that as it may).  They continue on their journey and stop over in the city that never sleeps.  (New York City, for those of you who never heard the term.)

Among other things the three get introduced into a Buddhist religion, which becomes relevant later.  Among the attendees to the discussion group (which is how I describe the event, whether that's what the Buddhists call it or not) is an early appearance by Gilda Radner as one of the Buddhists.

The three come away with some information, including a chant ("nam yoho rengay kyo" sp?).  While at a bar later, a girl, Donna, overhears Meadows chanting, and being a Buddhist herself, invites the three to a party.  Upon hearing that Buddusky and Mulhall are taking Meadows to prison, she tries to convince him to go to Canada.

It is apparent throughout the film that Meadows is an innoncent and naive individual, one who hasn't really experienced life at all, this despite the fact that he has been in the Navy and obviously gone through at least boot camp.  It's hard to imagine someone going through that and not coming away at least a little more experienced in life.  He is even still a virgin.  (Although he won't be by the time the movie ends.  But fear not, people, there is no overt pornographic scenes.  In fact the prostitute, played by Carol Kane, has her long hair covering the more "offensive" portions of her body when its let down.)

The penultimate scene, a picnic in the park, in the dead of winter, is one of the more revealing scenes in the movie.  While Buddusky and Mulhall discuss the fate of Meadows (who will be hardassed by Marines during his tenure at the prison, a fate Buddusky absolutely hates, even though he himself is not going to be experiencing it), Meadows himself sits a few feet away chanting like the dickens.  Without saying anything other than the chant, you can see a lot in the face of Meadows and it will be no surprise what he tries next.

The Last Detail is not a feel good movie, but it is an entertaining one.  Nicholson and Quaid both are worth the price of admission.

Have a safe drive home.


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