Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/15/09.
After two acclaimed feature films with 1970's The Landlord about a young rich white man becoming a landlord at an African-American community and 1971's Harold & Maude about a 20-year old heir finding life through a lively 78-year old woman. Hal Ashby was definitely a director on the rise. Yet, those two first films would later give Ashby the acclaim and reputation he would have in the years to come. In 1973, Ashby released a film that drew lots of controversy over its language based on a novel by Daryl Poniscan about two sailors accompanying a young man to prison entitled The Last Detail.
Directed by Hal Ashby with an adapted screenplay by Robert Towne, The Last Detail follows two sailors accompanying a much younger sailor to a Naval prison in Portsmouth. During the trip, the sailors deal with the injustice the young sailor is going through as they try to give the young man some freedom before having to ship him off to prison. With an all-star cast led by Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Carol Kane, Michael Moriarty, and Nancy Allen. The Last Detail is a harrowing yet comical film from the late, great Hal Ashby.
Billy "Badass" Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and "Mule" Mulhall (Otis Young) are called upon by their M.A.A. superior (Clifton James) to transport an 18-year old sailor named Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to the Portsmouth Naval Prison. Meadows is charged with stealing $40 from a box belong to the wife of a Naval Commandant where he will serve 8 years in prison. Buddusky and Mulhall are given shore patrol duty to accompany Meadows on a week trip to Portsmouth with stops to Washington D.C., Camden, New York City, and Boston. During this week-long trip, Buddusky and Mulhall noticed that Meadows is a shoplifter as he revealed that he never got the $40 he was meant to stole. After trying to run from them and later confessing he was a shoplifter, the men sympathize with Meadows realizing he's just a kid.
During a stop at D.C., the two men decide to give Meadows a last chance at some freedom before he goes to prison. During a stop at a bar, Buddusky wants to get Meadows some beer but instead threatens the bartender (Don McGovern) only to buy some beer later on. During that period of drunken beer, they talk about things as Buddusky asks Meadows if he ever got angry about anything. Realizing the kid has never confronted anyone, Buddusky shows him some lessons about confrontation. The next day, they stop to Camden to see Meadows' mother only to see that she's not there. Distraught, Meadows hides in the bathroom on the train after some harsh comments from Buddusky where Mulhall warns Buddusky about messing things up.
The trio stop in New York City where they get into a fight with some Marine guys, eat at a sandwich place, and encounter a Buddhist church meeting that Meadows is transfixed by. After doing some chanting, he meets a woman named Donna (Luana Anders) who heard him chanting as she invites the men to a party. The party left a lasting impression as they travel to Boston in hopes for Meadows to get laid, which he succeeds with a young hooker (Carol Kane). With the harsh realization of his final hours, Buddusky and Mulhall are aware that Meadows won't survive prison for eight years because he never really did anything wrong.
The film is a part-buddy comedy, part-road film, and part-social commentary about the military and its ideas of the law. The fact that an 18-year-old kid nearly stole $40 from a charity box from the Commandant's wife and gets 8 years for it seems rather ludicrous. Really, the kid should've gotten some a far lesser punishment like mopping the floor of base camps of something. What the film really is about is a journey of three men giving a young man a last dose of freedom before having to be sent to prison for 8 years where he'll be mistreated and abused by some hard-ass Marine grunts.
The screenplay by Robert Towne is truly phenomenal, particularly its hard-nosed, racy dialogue filled with dirty language in which the usage of the word "fuck" is used prominently. That's the kind of language and talk sailors use as they talk about bad stuff about the Marines and get into fights with them. The screenplay also has some great idea about character as Buddusky is the guy who takes charge of things, the wild one, and the mouthpiece for all that is bad. Then there's Meadows, an innocent kid who likes to steal things while being completely unaware about the real world. Holding it all together is Mule, the straight man to Buddusky as he reminds Buddusky of their duty while having the time to loosen up and speaking his mind on this motherfuckin' chickenshit detail.
The direction of Hal Ashby is superb in having a sense of movement as they travel from Norfolk all the way to Portsmouth. The rambunctiousness in the road trip aspect of the film has something that is unpredictable yet fun to watch. He lets the audience have a good time with these three Naval guys drinking beer, going into fights, and eating hot sausage sandwich. At the same time, he makes them aware that Buddusky and Mule have a duty to do and there's a real sadness to what would happen. Even though Meadows is given a chance to live a little, what he's facing is just wrong. Ashby's approach to the drama, even as he is doing through a constant sense of movement from a train and a bus. What happens in the end is that these two guys have to do their jobs as their Navy for life or else they'll be in trouble. The overall approach to Ashby's direction is truly masterfully as he is providing a sense of observation and study into the themes and individual that play out through this film.
Helping Ashby in his vision is cinematographer Michael Chapman whose hand-held, loose camera work really gives the film a style that works to Ashby's improvisational approach. Some of the exteriors including the scenes in snowy Boston are beautiful while he goes very deep into some of the dramatic action that goes on. The interior work is wonderfully lit as it plays up to the intimate scenes as well as some moments of humor and drama. Editor Robert C. Jones does great work in the film's stylish editing with the use of dissolve transitions and jump-cuts to give the film a rhythmic feel as it works to keep the leisurely pace going.
Production designer Michael D. Haller does fine work in the look of the hotels, church, and the brothel that the three men encounter as it's done with a sense of realism and style. Costume designer Theodore R. Parvin does excellent work in the look of the Naval suits that the three men wear in its detail from the hats and coat buttons. The sound work by Tom Overton and sound editor Sharron Miller do some very good work with the sound capturing the shakiness of the trains and the raucous atmosphere of the cities and train stops. Music composer Johnny Mandel brings a delightful score filled with melodic woodwinds and some themes revolving around a cadence-like drum fill.
The casting by Lynn Stalmaster is phenomenal as it features some early appearances from Gilda Radner as a Buddhist church goer, Nancy Allen as a partygoer, Carol Kane as a hooker, and Michael Moriarty as a Marine officer. Cameos from cinematographer Michael Chapman as a cab driver and director Hal Ashby as a man in a bar along with small roles from Don McGovern as a bartender, Luana Anders as another Buddhist church goer that Meadows encounter, and Clifton James as a Naval superior are also great. The late Otis Young is great as "Mule" Mulhall, the Naval seaman who is one of the patrol officers who is essentially the conscience and straight man of the story. Young's performance is definitely laid back while being the kind of guy you don't want to mess with as he even gets to spew out some harsh things about the detail.
In one of his early film roles, Randy Quaid, who got the part from a young John Travolta at the last minute, delivers a brilliant performance as Larry Meadows. A troubled 18-year-old who has a penchant for stealing things though it's really for things that are childish. Showing some innocence to his performance, Quaid really sells the troubled personality of the young man as it's definitely one of his great performances from the revered character actor. Finally, there's Jack Nicholson in what is truly one of the best roles of his career. Nicholson's exuberant, energetic, and exhilarating personality filled with angst and saucy language is Nicholson at his finest. At the same time, underneath his fiery personality is a man who clearly shows sympathy for the troubled Meadows as he realizes the injustice of it. While the film has Nicholson being the wild, crazy guy he's known for, there's also some depth into the character as he's just a man dealing with the injustice of the military.
Released in December of 1973, after months of delay by Columbia Pictures over the film's excessive use of profanity. The film received some critical attention while nabbing 3 Oscar nominations for Robert Towne for Adapted Screenplay, Randy Quaid for Best Supporting Actor, and Jack Nicholson for Best Actor. Though it wasn't a commercial success, the film did prove to be a big hit at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival where Nicholson won Best Actor that year. Later that year, Nicholson won Best Actor at the British Academy Awards, which he tied himself for his other performance in Roman Polanski's Chinatown. The film's acclaim and accolades helped Ashby's reputation as the film became a seminal classic in the years to come.
In 2006, acclaimed indie director Richard Linklater expressed interest in adapting a sequel to The Last Detail called Last Flag Flying. In the adaptation, Larry Meadows reunites with Buddusky, now a bar owner, after Meadows' own son was killed in the Iraq War. While Randy Quaid had expressed interest in playing the character again after being sent a script by Linklater, he said he would do it if Jack Nicholson was on board. Though Otis Young passed away in 2001, there were rumors that Morgan Freeman would play the role if the film would ever happen.
The Last Detail is a raunchy, funny, and harrowing comedy-drama from Hal Ashby and screenwriter Robert Towne. Led by the great performances of Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and the late Otis Young, it's a film that is still in-your-face and entertaining as it's filled with laughs and some profound things about the injustice of military laws. For audiences new to Hal Ashby, this is one of his essential films among his prolific period in the 1970s. Audiences who wanted to see why Jack Nicholson is so revered should see this as one of his finest performances to date. In the end, The Last Detail is a superb, chaotic, and enriching film from the late, great Hal Ashby.
Hal Ashby Films: The Landlord - Harold & Maude - Shampoo - Bound for Glory - Coming Home - Being There - Second-Hand Hearts - (Lookin' to Get Out) - (Let's Spend the Night Together) - (Solo Trans) - (The Slugger's Wife) - 8 Million Ways to Die
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