The Last Detail (1973)

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I am the motherfucking shore patrol! Jack Nicholson was one of the biggest stars of the 70s after Easy Rider and this adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s terrific novel is one of the key buddy movies of the period. Nicholson plays Billy ‘Badass’ Buddusky, Signalman First Class who’s awaiting orders at Norfolk naval base with Richard ‘Mule’ Mulhall (Otis Young) when they are directed to escort young Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to prison in Maine in the depths of winter.  He tried to steal $40 from a charity collection box – and the problem is it’s a favourite of his commanding officer’s wife so he’s got eight years for his efforts.  They set out on a Bon Voyage tour of the north east, getting into all sorts of scrapes and seeing the virginal Larry’s miserable home in Philadelphia en route.  Screenwriter Robert Towne, working for the first (but not the last) time with director Hal Ashby radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays:  J.J. Gittes in Chinatown, George Roundy in Shampoo, Mac in Tequila Sunrise.  All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic – and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday.  While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer (Gerald Ayres) and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), he wrote it with Nicholson in mind and it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies.  Nicholson’s casting also helped get the film made – the original draft screenplay had ‘342 fucks.’ (There were 65 in the final release.) However Towne had also envisioned the film being cast with Rupert Crosse who died before it got the greenlight so the spotlight of the film now shifted more completely to Nicholson, and the script’s emphasis was therefore changed: Nicholson simply did not have the same kind of relationship with Otis Young, Crosse’s replacement. It was now truly a star vehicle. Meadows was played by Texan newcomer Randy Quaid, who towered over Nicholson, lending even more comedy to the situation. (John Travolta made it to the last two but it was Quaid’s height which lent his character even more poignancy.) It took Nicholson’s winning the Best Actor award at Cannes to get Columbia to finally release the film which was a long time in the editing room. Nicholson still regards it as his best role – Chinatown notwithstanding! Ribald, profane, oddly touching and screamingly funny, this is a tonally perfect comic drama and one you won’t forget in a hurry. For more on it and the significance of Nicholson’s work with his greatest collaborator, screenwriter Robert Towne, you can read my book ChinaTowne:


Blow Out (1981)

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Take an Antonioni classic, Blow-up, make it about sound rather than pictures, add a dash of Kennedy crisis (Chappaquiddick/Texas), mix in a hint of right-wing conspiracy theories, use the ideas in Coppola’s The Conversation, and whisk into a Hitchcockian pastiche. And there you have it. A recipe for one of the key films of the Eighties, courtesy of Brian De Palma. This man knows his movies. Shot by Vilmos Zsigmond, sound by Pino Donaggio, star by John Travolta. Yum.

David & Lisa (1962)

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The first work by husband and wife team writer Eleanor and director Frank Perry.  David doesn’t like to be touched;  Lisa has a dissociative personality with two distinct personae. Somehow, in a mental hospital, this couple finds each other after both escape the centre and then return, making breakthroughs under the care of psychiatrist Howard Da Silva. Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin are impressive in their roles but it’s an enervating watch and difficult if you don’t like disturbed people acting out. Dullea had made his debut the previous year in Hoodlum Priest but remains best known for 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was Margolin’s debut and she died aged 50 in 1993. The Perrys were probably best known for The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife, further films distinguished by a careful, social sensibility with particularly modern concerns. Eleanor Perry was especially interested in women in film and despised their representation by directors such as Fellini, whose posters for Roma she defaced at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972.

Philadelphia (1993)

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Tom Hanks is such a part of the universal film firmament that it’s difficult to accept he has been ignored yet again in the Academy Awards for Bridge of Spies, 22 years after he got his first Oscar for this, the major studio movie that brought AIDS to the masses.  By the time this role rolled along, he was generally thought to be a hugely likable, charismatic comic actor, especially for Big (1988). Here he’s a dying lawyer suing his firm for discrimination through a homophobic black law firm whose only practitioner advertises on TV for clientele. Denzel Washington is brash and vicious, which is precisely what is required. It’s strange to think of Hanks as being young. Here he is emaciated, young and perfect. However we learn next to nothing about him other than his love of the law – he remains a cipher for other people’s projected prejudice. Some of his scenes with onscreen boyfriend Antonio Banderas were (ironically) cut from the cinema release. And the family of the lawyer whose lawsuit and interviews inspired the film had to sue for compensation after producer Scott Rudin abandoned the first production and claimed not to have used their material. Hanks’ Oscar speech outed his high school drama teacher, an incident that led to a very funny film, In & Out, starring Kevin Kline. Hanks then won again the following year for Forrest Gump, yet he just gets better and better – he was brilliant in Apollo 13 (still Ron Howard’s best), convincing in the slyly comic Charlie Wilson’s War and thrillingly ordinary in Captain Phillips, until the final section when he gets to emote and break down (as you would after a Somali pirate group attacked you.) He has also achieved legendary status courtesy of the Toy Story films. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme has had an interesting career and here gives homage to early mentor Roger Corman with a cameo as a nasty CEO. He made Caged Heat amongst others under his tutelage. Further evidence of his exploitation days is in the casting of Charles Napier as the judge and director Stephanie Roth in a small role. And of course from his early shot at respectability there’s Jason Robards from Melvin and Howard as the reptilian head of the law firm that fired Andy. And it’s nice to see Quentin Crisp turning up to Denzel’s ‘first gay party’.  Writer Ron Nyswaner had cut his teeth doing fixing work on Smithereens and Swing Shift (directed by Demme) and more recently has worked on Ray Donovan and Homeland, two of the best TV shows in years. This is dated in the best sense of the term – it marks a watershed in mainstream entertainment.