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The Last Detail (1973)

11 Feb


Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith

WARNING: The last paragraph heavily discusses the film’s ending.

Jack Nicholson. What can you say about this iconic, highly charismatic actor (scratch that—“star,” not “actor”) that hasn’t been said already? He’s one of those actors who could read the dictionary or the phone book and be, for lack of a better word, awesome. There are a lot of movie buffs out there who will argue over which is his best performance. Some say it’s the pissed-off working-class man in “Five Easy Pieces,” some say it’s the slimily charming astronaut in “Terms of Endearment,” and so on. For me personally, it’s no question, although I’d say it’s more my “favorite” rather than “the best.” That distinction goes to his performance in 1973’s “The Last Detail,” as Naval Officer Buddusky, played with the Nicholson charm, the Nicholson attitude, and the Nicholson smirk. His nickname? “Bad Ass.” I get the feeling the screenplay was written with Nicholson in mind as this character because, to me, this completely defines everything this star stands for and is best known for.

Buddusky and his fellow officer “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are called upon for a “sh*t detail,” but this is one that seems fairly simple: transport a young sailor, Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid), from his Virginia Navy base to the brig in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he will be imprisoned for eight years (“six years for good behavior,” Buddusky assures Meadows). Meadows’ crime was an attempt to lift $40 from a charity box belonging to the base commander’s wife’s favorite charity—a semi-petty crime from a budding kleptomaniac (though he never actually managed to get the money out of the box). Before Buddusky and Mulhall even get to know the kid, they agree that serving an eight-year prison sentence because of this isn’t the least bit fair. But along the way to the brig, by bus and train, they make small talk and get to know each other. The two officers escorting the prisoner find that he’s a sad-sack kid who’s as unlucky as they come. When he has a mental breakdown on the train, they take him off to relax, and Buddusky gets an idea to make this trip worthwhile by stretching it out as much as possible so he can show Meadows how to have a good time (or rather, Buddusky’s idea of a good time). Their two-day trip becomes a five-day journey of beer, ladies, and badass conduct before they inevitably must take Meadows to his destination.

One of the notable assets that works in the film’s favor is Robert Towne’s script (who also wrote another Nicholson vehicle, “Chinatown”), which doesn’t pull punches or go for the easiest task of sentiment. It’s mostly a series of scenes that are either funny, endearing, insightful, or even all three, mostly told through dialogue. The conversations between these three men are mostly natural exchanges and it’s always refreshing to hear characters just be regular people instead of pawns in a screenplay’s game. Credit should also go to director Hal Ashby and cinematographer Michael Chapman—they help what could be formless scenes into something more; something meaningful; something potent. Even in a scene where they’re just sitting around in a motel room, drinking beer, watching a movie, and talking about life and the future, it works because you get into these guys’ heads even more.

But I don’t want to make “The Last Detail” seem so deep that it’s not entertaining and it would chase people away, because it also is very funny, especially when Buddusky comes up with a new way of teaching Meadows how to have fun. There are also many sharp and witty lines of dialogue that makes the conversations between the characters fun to listen to. There’s a sense of underlying bleakness, but it only truly makes its way as a good balance. This way, when something humorous occurs, it’s well-deserved. Some of my favorite bits include a scene at a bar where Buddusky tries to get underage Meadows a drink and snaps at an uptight bartender and a scene in which he tries to hit on a pretty young woman by talking about romance or life on the sea while all she wants to talk about is politics.

Jack Nicholson was tailor-made for this role—profane, vulgar, charismatic, carrying a suitable devil-may-care attitude all throughout the film, and even kind of sentimental, which is notable in scenes such as when he tells Meadows to take back his order at a restaurant because he should “have it the way you want it.” His presence practically makes the film, and “Bad Ass” is the perfect nickname for his character (you were thinking the same thing). The other two actors, Otis Young and Randy Quaid, are solid support. Young is more controlled than Nicholson and a good counterpoint when Nicholson has another idea that may get them in more potential trouble while also (possibly) subtly respecting him in a way that he might actually wish he could be more like him. Quaid is perfect as their charge who is naïve, goofy, and likable; you could even say he’s so pathetic that it’s hard not to care for this poor guy.

At this point, I’m going to discuss the film’s ending in heavy detail. If you haven’t seen the film, please do and come back and read the rest of this review.

The ending of “The Last Detail” is one of the most intriguing and talked-about aspects of the film. It doesn’t end the way movie audiences, especially today’s, would expect. A more conventional film would have ended with Meadows’ escape from his escorts or any kind of decision that would have resulted in him not going to prison. It almost seems as if they were going to go in that direction, in a scene in which Meadows has his chance to escape while Buddusky and Mulhall are discussing bitterly what they have to do in the end. What happens? He bolts, causing them to chase him. They catch him (and not only that; Buddusky pistol-whips him). In the end, Buddusky and Mulhall do their duty and take Meadows to the prison where he is taken away without a word. A lot of people must be thinking, “Why did they do this? Why didn’t they let him escape? How could they let this happen to their new friend after all they’ve done together?” There’s no doubt that both Buddusky and Mulhall are heartsick about the inevitable, but they decide that it is their duty they set out to do and, being honorable men of their position, there’s no other final route. What may throw people off is the hidden irony, which is this—Buddusky pistol-whips Meadows when he catches him and the officer in command at the prison berates him for it…and Buddusky has already mentioned the probable brutality Meadows should expect in the prison. What does that say about the situation? (To be fair, Buddusky does lie when asked if Meadows tried to escape, just to save him any more trouble.) Something else conventional movie audiences would expect is Buddusky and Mulhall would become great friends after this. Do they? It’s hard to tell—as the two men leave, they talk about what they’re going to do next, one of them hoping his Navy orders came through. They just walk away, uncertain of their futures. Fade out. The end. Roll credits. This is what the late film critic Gene Siskel used to call the “life-goes-on” ending, a rarity in films. It’s a resolution in which no matter what we would like to happen to get a “happy ending” out of the film we’re watching, it ends in a way that both surprises and unsettles the audience. (“Terms of Endearment” is another example of this.) It doesn’t end the way we expect it to, or even the way we would like it to, but that’s what you can say for just about any situation in real life. As a plus, by ending movies this way, the audience remembers the movie and can think about what it all amounted to in the end. Discussions among friends can also come about. The ending of “The Last Detail” is hard, realistic, and also ambiguous. It’s a great ending to an already terrific film. The more times I watch it, the more I get out the setup, the journey, and the resolution

Mean Streets (1973)

23 Sep


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What’s it like to live in a gangster environment? More important, what’s it like to survive it? Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” presents a portrayal of people going through life in New York’s Little Italy in a way that it’s hardly about gangsters as much as it is about those who have grown up and developed an understanding about that place. Some people are innocent, others strike deals, others are enforcers, and then there are those you really don’t want to cross. One of the characters states it as practically living in a constant state of sin, but continuing through with it because that’s what’s expected of him and his friends.

“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets.” Those are the opening, narrating words from Charlie (Harvey Keitel), a small-time hood collecting on the mean streets of Little Italy. He’s a Catholic with hints of feelings of guilt, but is too focused on the mob business to feel much guilt for what he does or sees. He’s also not entirely good at this business, and can hardly take care of himself. With the money he can bring in from collecting from his uncle’s protection racket, he’ll be lucky just to open a small business. But what separates him from the other Mafiosos is that he actually does have a conscience, as part of his Catholicism. Sometimes it does make him wonder (he even hovers his hand over a candle while thinking about the fires of Hell).

We meet the people in Charlie’s life, including Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro), Tony (David Proval), Michael (Richard Romanus), and Teresa (Amy Robinson). Johnny Boy is a special case—being an out-of-control, intense thug, he embraces the criminal street life, takes everything as it comes, and tends to take out his anger and emotions by beating whomever he can find. He is also very pathetic, as he paid his debts to Michael, the local loan shark, in quite a long while, and his extensions are running out. Charlie sometimes feels forced to look out for him and make sure he stays on track with everything, including a pivotal moment in which he must calm him down when he’s shooting a .38 on a rooftop. His constant getting into trouble leads to even more trouble.

Tony is also part of the Mafia community—along with Michael, he co-owns a local bar and is much a Mafioso as Michael. That leaves Teresa, Johnny Boy’s epileptic cousin, who is very beautiful and the object of Charlie’s affections. But due to her epilepsy, she is shunned by society and thus her and Charlie’s relationship is kept secret.

These are the characters of “Mean Streets,” and the film’s main focus is on what they do, how they live, how they relate to each other, what they get into, etc. Scorsese takes these fully-realized characters and puts them in a fully-realized world for a film that has something to say about them and we’re interested in knowing what that is. By the time the film is over (to its tragic end), you sympathize with them and hope they continue to survive in this messed-up place, no matter what it takes, and just hope it doesn’t push too far.

When you follow a group of characters in a film that doesn’t have a story in the traditional sense, and just focuses on how they live their lives, it helps the most when they feel real. Charlie, Johnny Boy, Teresa, Tony, Michael, and others around them seem exactly right for this material, and are played excellently by the actors, especially Keitel who brings the sincerity within the budding Mafioso, and De Niro (his very first collaboration with Scorsese; three years before “Taxi Driver,” seven years before “Raging Bull”) who brings a powerful screen presence to his performance. They feel real; the brotherly relationship between Charlie and Johnny Boy feels real; their whole world feels real; the way Scorsese frames them all feels as if we’re eavesdropping on them; the scenes of violence are very well-controlled.

“Mean Streets” came out the year after Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather,” the gangster film to end all gangster films. While most gangster films released back then would try to imitate that film’s success and grand scale, Scorsese opted to make a dark, small, personal film that was more mature than a good deal of the copycats that “The Godfather” inspired. “Mean Streets” is a great film, and it was the commercial debut of Scorsese, who of course would become later known to us as America’s greatest filmmakers.

The Exorcist (1973)

19 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Exorcist” is regarded as a classic in the horror film genre. People always remember the shocking moments—the projectile vomiting, the spinning head, the floating-above-the-bed, and especially the horrifying appearance of a demon-possessed little girl whose image is still being used to frighten people. Yes, “The Exorcist” has its freaky scenes and real effective scares, but that’s not the main reason it’s hailed as a classic. It’s because it’s so grounded in reality and initiated on characters and story, so that the horror elements take great effect. It was shocking in 1973 and it’s still shocking now.

“The Exorcist” presents a story about a girl being possessed by a demon, and the fight to relieve her from it, in a surprisingly plausible way. It features realistic characters we can sympathize with and root for. It’s directed and lit in such a way that the atmosphere allows the movie to suck you in. And also, it’s as if it doesn’t try to be horrifying. It tells its story in the way that a demon possession, and an exorcism, possibly could happen. The horror mainly comes from what the characters go through; they all have issues and preoccupations. There are two in particular that we focus on. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is busy keeping her career going and raising her only daughter Regan (Linda Blair), but now has to struggle with Regan’s new illness (more on that later) that just seems to get worse and worse; and Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller) seems to have lost his faith recently and is constantly tending to his sick mother. Throughout the movie, Karras has to struggle with his faith—whether or not he can gain it back.

Regan is not well, to say the least. At first it just seems like she’s slightly ill—she swears up a storm and acts a little funny. It only seems like stages of puberty at first, but doctors suspect something a little more serious than that, and give her all sorts of medical tests. But while they show nothing out of the ordinary, there is definitely something wrong not only with her, but around her. Her bed is shaking violently with her on it, there are strange noises in the attic, and other little strange things start to happen, including unexplained movements and even deaths that are possible murders.

Regan’s personality changes (as does her voice, for which actress Mercedes McCambridge takes over), and she even states that she is the Devil taking control of Regan’s body. There’s no doubt that Regan is possessed, and when things get even worse, the situation calls for an exorcism to save Regan and be rid of whatever is controlling her. Chris consults Karras, who agrees to look into it with psychiatry, though he doesn’t believe in exorcism necessarily. But despite his doubts, he calls for help from an experienced exorcist, Father Merrin (Max von Sydow), to perform the exorcism.

The setup is extremely well-done, as it slowly but surely sucks you into the tension of the story. Take the early scene in which Chris hosts a party at her house. The guests are gathered around the piano, singing off-key and unrehearsed to the tune being played. That’s as normal as you can get, and then it eases you into the unsettling moment in which Regan comes in and interrupts by saying in a deadpan tone, “You’re going to die up there,” and then urinates on the floor. What I’m getting at here is that “The Exorcist” eases you into the shock elements by taking relatively normal situations and transforming them into sure unsettlement, so that when the real terror comes, it feels like we’re there and that makes the film more terrifying.

I like that “The Exorcist” keeps this grounded to just here and now. Instead of the whole world and mankind that Merrin and Karras have to fight for, it’s the mind, body, and spirit of this poor little girl that must be won. This leads to the climax, in which Merrin and Karras carry through the exorcism. You’d think this would be the low point of the movie—just a special-effects extravaganza with no real thought or tension. But you’d be wrong. While there are neat effects (the head-spinning and the mystic floating, as everyone knows of), the sequence keeps the edge of everything that has occurred before by adding elements such as the temperature of the room, the intensity of the situation, and no music score to tell us to be on edge. The best part—we’re not sure of the outcome.

Also, have you noticed that it’s not quite clear exactly who or what is inside with Regan? Is it the Devil? Is it one of his followers? Who knows for sure? We only know what the characters know, and it adds to the brilliance of the screenplay.

The acting is excellent all around. Ellen Burstyn turns in a great performance as a mother whose sole concern is the welfare of her child. Max von Sydow is great as Merrin; very solid work here. If I had to pick the best acting job, it wouldn’t be Linda Blair (who, don’t get me wrong, is more than convincing as Regan—in fact, she stands out, even before she’s possessed). It instead would have to be Jason Miller as Karras. He struggles with knowing that he is a man of God who has lost his faith, and keeps most of his pain inside. Miller is utterly convincing in this role. My favorite scene of his is when he meets Regan for the first time, while she is strapped to the bed. He casually introduces himself, in a way a psychiatrist would, to which Regan responds in the demonic voice, “And I’m the Devil! Now kindly undo these straps!” Karras just keeps his cool and plays along, “If you’re the Devil, why don’t you make the straps disappear?” It’s more of a battle of wits between him and Regan (or Regan’s demon) before the exorcism.

“The Exorcist” is without a doubt one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s right up there with “Psycho” and “Halloween”—movies that scare me, but also make me think and admire its craftsmanship. With great acting, a realistic atmosphere, and memorable images (my favorite, of course, being the shot in which Merrin stands in silhouette, under a street lamp, looking up at the house where he will perform the exorcism), “The Exorcist” is a brilliant and more-than-effective horror film. Something wicked is inside Regan…and we believe it.