Here's an example of one of our shorter write-ups in the book. These start with "Now Showing" information and a seventy-character "Preview" (always exactly seventy characters). Then come the essay's title and a 400-word discussion, followed by an "Added Attraction" that supplements the main movie with some extra list or further analysis.

NOW SHOWING: The Last Detail (December 1973)

Director: Hal Ashby

Stars: Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, Otis Young

Academy Awards: Three nominations (Best Actor--Jack Nicholson; Best Supporting Actor--Randy Quaid; Best Writing)

PREVIEW: Two career sailors give a young criminal new experiences as they take him to prison.


Usually we say someone swears like a sailor, but in The Last Detail (1973) the sailors swear like Jenny in Love Story (1970).

Okay, they're a little worse. By 1973 Hollywood had overcome various restrictions on violence and sex, but few movies had tested the profanity barrier. M*A*S*H (1970) is considered the first major American movie to use the F-word (once, and quickly). Mean Streets (1973) took it up several notches, but two months later The Last Detail was the dynamite that blasted open the doors to raw language. Different characters in this compelling movie say the f-word about sixty times, a puny amount compared to later movies like Scarface (1983). At the time, though, The Last Detail's abundant expletives were so noteworthy that they were spelled out with the symbols #@!* four times on the movie's poster to alert audiences.

The character in The Last Detail who swears the most (forty-two times) is a crude career Navy man, "Bad Ass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson, with a moustache). Buddusky's assignment--his detail--is to join with another sailor, Mulhall (Otis Young), and escort Meadows (Randy Quaid), an eighteen-year-old convicted criminal, from Virginia to a New Hampshire prison. Soft-spoken and naïve, Meadows doesn't swear, but he shoplifts. Pathetically, he can't help himself, and often he doesn't even want the small things he takes.

The journey starts with this awkward trio taking a bus and a train up the coast. Meadows makes one feeble escape attempt, but mostly he's docile and obedient. Stopping in Washington, D.C., and New York, the guys bond as they share hotel rooms and experiences. Buddusky gets paternal and proudly introduces Meadows to "the finest Italian-sausage sandwiches in the world" and "the finest beer in the world." The big leap comes when Buddusky and Mulhall pay for Meadows' visit to a Boston whorehouse; his first encounter lasts all of twenty seconds, but he seems changed.

On the last day, Meadows tries to run, the swabbies manage to deliver him to prison, and he's abruptly taken away. Buddusky and Mulhall exit bragging about how well they did their jobs (a departure from the original book, where Buddusky is killed in a skirmish, thus he really was on his "last detail"). The audience, meanwhile, leaves with haunting impressions--of the poor kid's grim future, of Nicholson's perfect performance, and of the startling profanity that has intensified the realism of this underappreciated tragicomedy.

ADDED ATTRACTION: Diner Scene, Take Two

Twenty-four minutes into the movie, the sailors stop in a Washington, D.C. diner. There, Buddusky starts to make an issue out of something that's been served to them. Seeing this in 1973, perceptive viewers might have been holding their breaths, since a famous diner scene in Five Easy Pieces (1970) had ended with Nicholson's character dramatically clearing the table with his arm. In The Last Detail he politely asks the waiter to melt the cheese on the cheeseburger, adding, "See Meadows? It's just as easy to have it the way you want it." It can't be a coincidence that "easy" is in that sentence.


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