[Originally published in Movietone News 30, March 1974]
One of life’s great delights is surprise, and this surprising picture gives great delight indeed. For me, the chief element of surprise comes from The Last Detail‘s constant manipulation of my expectations in terms of genre. Ordinarily, when I sit down to a film about which I know nothing beforehand—the case with this picture—the first shot or two tell me, among other things, what genre the film will belong to. Any given genre carries its own set of conventions governing characters, treatment, resolutions, tone, and any number of other ingredients, so part of my pleasure comes from watching the filmmakers elaborating, working, and fulfilling those conventions and my expectations. But The Last Detail doesn’t do that at all; instead it quite resolutely refuses to submit to genre conventions while playing deftly on our expectations like a graceful bullfighter executing countless veronicas as we rush by him time after time trying to pin him down to earth. In other words, one never knows quite where this film is going until it has reached its end, and even its ending defies any genre convention that I’m acquainted with.
Now, don’t misunderstand me; I don’t mean to suggest that the film doesn’t know where it’s going, because it very certainly does know that. It’s just not telling us; as a matter of fact, whenever we decide we’ve figured out what’s going to happen next, whippo goes the rug out from under us. None of this is done in a tricky or showy way, incidentally; the film’s narrative purpose is not to impress us, but rather to catch us a little off guard to make sure we understand that it really isn’t like other films, that it’s going to call its own shots and run things its own way. As a result, about halfway through the picture, one gives up trying to outguess it in genre terms, and turns oneself over to its idiosyncratic narrative without further attempt to preshape it. Similarly, one gives up on the dozens of McGuffins (a word Hitchcock coined to describe an event or object that seems to be important but really isn’t), those false leads that convention—not logic—coerces us into overinterpreting. Whatever you figure must happen next simply doesn’t, and so eventually you even give up on the details you ordinarily use to predict the shape and content of sequences.
Now we can just plain watch The Last Detail. After we’ve been carried helplessly, but happily, along for the ride, we can look back over it all and see that the picture’s essential genre is that of the initiation story, which traditionally moves from location to location to introduce its protagonist to various situations and tests that he must overcome in order to achieve his education or initiation into life. One of this film’s particularly genial touches appears in the fact that we often wonder precisely who among the protagonists is being initiated. Director Hal Ashby has impeccably executed Robert Towne’s screenplay, translating its very personal eccentricities of structure into tightly shaped, but relaxed episodes that butt-splice neatly together. Writer, director, and actors all work beautifully together to create some of the most fetching characters to hit the screen in recent years. Their dialogue is pithy and extremely salty, and the picture doesn’t contain a single line that sounds as if it had been set down beforehand by a writer. From its smallest line and camera setup to its overall master structures, the film consistently avoids cliché. While every actor turns in an excellent and always completely idiosyncratic performance, Jack Nicholson’s part stands out particularly because of the churning vitality Nicholson invests in his irrepressible character. And despite the film’s thoroughgoing energy and craftsmanship, it’s the characters who remain fixed in the mind’s eye as the picture begins to lose its definition to the ravages of memory. After a couple of weeks, although I can recall the picture quite well for a person with a terrible memory, it’s certain expressions on the actors’ faces that are beginning to form my strongest recollections: expressions of ebullience, mystification, drunkenness, delight, radiance, disappointment, incredulity, and on and on. It’s all done without the slightest hint of any attempt at acting on anyone’s part. It, like everything else in this most surprising film, simply seems to come into existence absolutely without effort. And the appearance of effortlessness, to my mind, is one of the signs of consummate artistry.
THE LAST DETAIL
Direction: Hal Ashby. Screenplay: Robert Towne, after the novel by Darryl Ponicsan. Cinematography: Michael Chapman. Music: Johnny Mandel.
The Players: Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Carol Kane, Michael Moriarity.
Copyright © 1974 R C Dale