The Last Detail (1973)


Introduction

The Last Detail is a 1973 American comedy-drama film directed by Hal Ashby and starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, Randy Quaid, Clifton James, Michael Moriarty and Carol Kane.

The screenplay was written by Robert Towne, based on a 1970 novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan.

Ponicsan’s novel Last Flag Flying is a sequel to his 1970 novel The Last Detail, which covered the same characters earlier in their lives.

For that reason, Last Flag Flying (2017) has been described as an unofficial sequel to the earlier novel’s 1973 film adaptation, The Last Detail.

Outline

On Saturday 15 December 1973, Navy lifers Signalman First Class Billy “Badass” Buddusky (Jack Nicholson) and Gunner’s Mate First Class Richard “Mule” Mulhall (Otis Young) are awaiting orders in Norfolk, Virginia. They are assigned a shore patrol detail escorting 18-year old Seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) to Portsmouth Naval Prison near Kittery, Maine. Meadows has been court-martialed, dishonourably discharged, and sentenced to eight years in the brig for stealing $40 from a charity fund run by the wife of a senior officer. Buddusky and Mulhall are given one week to escort Meadows to Portsmouth , and if they fail to complete the task on time or let Meadows go free, they will be kicked out of the Navy and lose all benefits and pay. Despite their initial resentment of the detail, and realising that their prisoner is a kleptomaniac who steals compulsively, Billy and Mule begin to like Meadows as they escort him on a train ride through the wintry northeastern states. They decide to show him a good time before delivering him to the authorities.

With several days to spare before they are due in Portsmouth, the trio make stops along their route to provide bon-voyage adventures for Meadows. In Washington, DC, they go to a diner and order burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Next they go to a bar, but they are denied drinks at a bar, as Meadows looks like he could be underage and cannot provide ID. Instead they go to a gas station and get drunk in the parking lot. Then they buy whiskey and cigars and bring them to the hotel room. They stay up all night watching TV, playing cards and charades, telling stories, and looking at magazines. In Camden, New Jersey they seek out Meadows’ mother, only to find her away for the day and the house a pigsty, cluttered with empty whiskey bottles. They take him ice skating at Rockefeller Centre in New York City and they go bar hopping. They also encounter a group of Nichiren Buddhists chanting away in an apartment building, and the Buddhists teach Meadows how to pray. Meadows pronounces his several days with Badass and Mule to be the best of his whole life.

When they finally arrive in Portsmouth, Meadows has a final request – a picnic. The senior sailors buy some hot dogs and attempt a frigid barbecue in the snow. Meadows suddenly bolts in a last-ditch effort to run away but slips on the ice and falls. Buddusky and Mulhall arrive, and Buddusky loses his temper and beats Meadows up. After regaining control, Buddusky apologises to Meadows, who is crying, and tosses him a tissue.

Buddusky and Mulhall take Meadows into the prison where he is taken away and marched off to be processed without a word. Although Buddusky had worried about the brutality awaiting Meadows at the hands of the Marine guards, the young duty officer (a first lieutenant wearing an Annapolis ring), berates Buddusky and Mulhall for striking Meadows. The duty officer asks if Meadows had tried to resist or fight, which they deny. The Marine also notices that their orders were never officially signed by the master-at-arms in Norfolk, meaning effectively they had not left. The angry young Marine officer relents when Mulhall and Buddusky ask to speak to the XO (Executive Officer).

With the detail complete, the pair stride away from the prison complaining about the duty officer’s incompetence because after the rebuke he forgot to keep his copy of the paperwork. Both hope their orders will have come through when they get back to Norfolk.

Cast

  • Jack Nicholson as Signalman 1st Class Billy L. “Badass” Buddusky.
  • Otis Young as Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Richard “Mule” Mulhall.
  • Randy Quaid as Seaman Laurence M. “Larry” Meadows.
  • Clifton James as M.A.A.
  • Carol Kane as Young Whore.
  • Michael Moriarty as First Lieutenant Marine Duty Officer.
  • Nancy Allen as Nancy.
  • Gilda Radner as Nichiren Shoshu Member.
  • Jim Hohn as Nichiren Shoshu Member.
  • Luana Anders as Donna.

Trivia

  • The project stalled for 18 months while Nicholson made The King of Marvin Gardens.
  • The director wanted to shoot on location at the naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, and the brig at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but was unable to get permission from the United States Navy.
    • However, the Canadian Navy was willing to cooperate and in mid-August 1972, Ashby and his casting director Stalmaster traveled to Toronto, Ontario to look at a naval base and meet with actors.
    • The base suited their needs and Ashby met Carol Kane, whom he would cast in a small role.
    • Opening scenes of the film were not shot at a Canadian Naval Base, but rather at CFB Borden, a major training base for the Canadian Air Force & Army.
  • Just as the film was about to go into production, Crosse was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Ashby postponed principal photography for a week to allow Crosse to deal with the news and decide if he still wanted to do the film.
    • The actor decided not to do the film, and Ashby and Stalmaster scrambled to find a replacement. They cast Otis Young.
  • The film became known for its frequent use of profanity, and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Nicholson), Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Quaid) and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

Production & Filming Details

  • Director(s): Hal Ashby.
  • Producer(s): Gerald Ayres, Charles Mulvehill, and Joel Chernoff.
  • Writer(s): Robert Towne.
  • Music: Johnny Mandel.
  • Cinematography: Michael Chapman.
  • Editor(s): Robert C. Jones.
  • Production: Columbia Pictures, Bright-Persky Associates, and Acrobat Productions.
  • Distributor(s): Columbia Pictures.
  • Release Date: 12 December 1973.
  • Running time: 103 minutes.
  • Country: US.
  • Language: English.

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