The Risk in the Detail
To be or not to be…Johnny Hooker or Billy Buddusky? Jack Nicholson liked both scripts he was offered, those of The Sting (1973) and The Last Detail (1973), but he opted for the latter because he found that though the former was well-written and commercial, the latter was written by his friend Robert Towne, adapting a novel by Darryl Ponicsan (who himself adapted his other novel for another film that would play concurrently, Cinderella Liberty), and Nicholson felt, “I need to take a risk.” It turned out he was right about the risk. The story of two veteran swabbies assigned to escort a sad-sack recruit to a naval prison was no sure thing. This would only be the third helming gig for editor-turned-director Hal Ashby, whose two previous films The Landlord (1970) and Harold and Maude (1971) were considered quirky and didn’t land in bankrolling studio executives’ comfort zones.(Ashby’s bust for possession of marijuana during a location scouting trip to Canada didn’t inspire confidence either.) There was also the matter of the script’s overabundant use of the “f-word,” which caused further delays as the studio tried to negotiate the realism-fixated Towne down to the level that survives: 65 occurrences, the most in any film at the time. Rupert Crosse (Shadows, The Reivers) was cast as Nicholson’s sailor partner but a terminal cancer diagnosis caused him to bow out and Otis Young was hastily recruited. Candidates to play the hapless prisoner, in the original novel a short, unprepossessing young man, were winnowed down to the larger John Travolta or Randy Quaid, the latter’s air of hulking innocence and his work in his debut film The Last Picture Show becoming deciding factors for Ashby. After the film wrapped, Columbia Pictures remained cautious so it opened the film this week in 1973 at the Bruin Theater in Westwood for a one-week Oscar®-qualifying engagement before going national the following spring. The booking did the trick, landing critical huzzahs and Oscar® nominations for Nicholson, Quaid and Towne. (One of Nicholson’s fellow nominees was the guy who finally played Johnny Hooker: Robert Redford.) As it was a 1974 release for most of the world, Nicholson had to wait for many of the laurels he was accorded for his badass, bravura performance, starting with a Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Award in May, and year-end Best Actor honors from the New York Film Critics, National Society of Film Critics and British Academy Awards, in tandem with another performance in a Towne-scripted story: Chinatown. However risk-vs.-reward calculations are made, The Last Detail has lost none of its humor and poignance. Assessing in 2013 “one of the finest works of ’70s American cinema,” Keith Uhlich of Time Out writes: “The tough, salty script by Chinatown’s Robert Towne never pulls punches or succumbs to easy sentiment, while Hal Ashby’s boozily generous direction allows potentially shapeless scenes, like a drunken all-nighter or a brothel stopover, to breathe with instinctual, off-the-cuff potency. Nicholson’s cigar-chomping, profanity-spouting grunt is one of the greatest incarnations of stunted machismo onscreen, and he’s brilliantly complemented by Quaid’s picture-perfect awkwardness and Young’s bracing cynicism. There’s a once-in-a-lifetime feeling to the trio’s every interaction – not only as characters but as performers – that makes the film’s casually tragic climax that much more devastating.” Assign yourself to The Last Detail on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray January 19. Preorders open January 6.