The Last Detail (1974)

R | 103 or 105 mins | Comedy-drama | February 1974

Director:

Hal Ashby

Writer:

Robert Towne

Producer:

Gerald Ayres

Cinematographer:

Michael Chapman

Editor:

Robert C. Jones

Production Designer:

Michael Haller

Production Companies:

Bright-Persky Associates, Acrobat Films
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HISTORY

According to an 18 Dec 1969 DV news item, Columbia’s vice president of creative affairs, Gerald Ayres, was in negations to acquire the film rights to Daryl Ponicsan’s novel, The Last Detail . When he left Columbia to produce independently, he took the property with him and, as noted in a 17 Aug 1970 HR news item, made it under the banner of his own company, Acrobat Films, as its second project. A 21 Aug 1970 HR news item announced that Ayres had signed Robert Towne to write the screenplay and, according to studio production notes, they worked on the script with Jack Nicholson in mind for “William ‘Badass’ Buddusky” even before he expressed interest in the role. A 14 Aug 1972 Publishers Weekly news item reported that Ponicsan sold the screen rights for the novel for $100,000. Although the same news item also mentioned that he received an additional $50,000 for a rewrite of the script that resulted in the studio getting Nicholson, Ponicsan’s contribution to the final screenplay was not credited onscreen or reported in other available contemporary sources.
       A 15 Sep 1972 DV news item reported that Rupert Crosse, a friend of Nicholson, had been cast as “‘Mule’ Mulhall.” However, Crosse was soon after diagnosed with cancer. Modern sources state that director Hal Ashby delayed production for a week, hoping that Crosse would be able to make the film, but Crosse dropped out of the project and was replaced by Otis Young. Crosse died in Mar 1973. Ayers and Ashby each make cameo appearances in the film. The Last Detail marked the feature ... More Less

According to an 18 Dec 1969 DV news item, Columbia’s vice president of creative affairs, Gerald Ayres, was in negations to acquire the film rights to Daryl Ponicsan’s novel, The Last Detail . When he left Columbia to produce independently, he took the property with him and, as noted in a 17 Aug 1970 HR news item, made it under the banner of his own company, Acrobat Films, as its second project. A 21 Aug 1970 HR news item announced that Ayres had signed Robert Towne to write the screenplay and, according to studio production notes, they worked on the script with Jack Nicholson in mind for “William ‘Badass’ Buddusky” even before he expressed interest in the role. A 14 Aug 1972 Publishers Weekly news item reported that Ponicsan sold the screen rights for the novel for $100,000. Although the same news item also mentioned that he received an additional $50,000 for a rewrite of the script that resulted in the studio getting Nicholson, Ponicsan’s contribution to the final screenplay was not credited onscreen or reported in other available contemporary sources.
       A 15 Sep 1972 DV news item reported that Rupert Crosse, a friend of Nicholson, had been cast as “‘Mule’ Mulhall.” However, Crosse was soon after diagnosed with cancer. Modern sources state that director Hal Ashby delayed production for a week, hoping that Crosse would be able to make the film, but Crosse dropped out of the project and was replaced by Otis Young. Crosse died in Mar 1973. Ayers and Ashby each make cameo appearances in the film. The Last Detail marked the feature film debut of actress/comedian Gilda Radnor, who portrayed one of the Buddhist chanters, and the first major role of Randy Quaid, who played “Lawrence M. Meadows.” In a Feb 2008 GQ interview, Quaid recollected that John Travolta had been considered for that role. The film also marked former operative cameraman Michael Chapman’s debut as director of photography. Although Ken Zemke was listed as a film editor in a contemporary cast and crew list found in the production file for the film in the AMPAS Library, only Robert C. Jones is credited onscreen. According to modern sources, Ashby, himself a former editor, was unhappy with Zemke and replaced him with Jones.
       According to modern sources, the film was shot in sequence. Studio production notes state that portions of the film were shot at train stations in Norfolk and Richmond, VA; Washington, DC; and New York’s Pennsylvania Station. However, a modern source reports that when equipment needed for the scenes were not available at the Richmond station (which was later demolished), the shooting for that sequence had to be moved to Atlanta, Georgia. According to studio production notes, the ice skating sequence in the film was shot after hours at Rockefeller Center in New York City, and the sausage stand sequence was shot on MacDougal Street near New York City’s Washington Square. Shooting sites around Boston, MA included the seedy area of Washington St. for the adult bookstore sequence and the Suffolk County Jail, which stood in for the New Hampshire naval prison. In addition, 15 Nov 1972 DV and 22 Nov 1972 Var news items reported that portions of the film were shot in Toronto. A 10 Feb 1974 LAHExam article explained that the naval base scenes were shot there, and modern sources add that the company used a military base in Toronto after the U.S. Navy, which was uneasy about how the Navy was portrayed in the film, refused permission to shoot on the Norfolk base. The last scene in the picture, as well as the last shot filmed, was at Deer Island in Winthrop, MA, located across the harbor from Boston.
       The 1970 book, The Last Detail , was the first published novel of Darryl Ponicsan, a former school teacher who also wrote Cinderella Liberty , which was the basis for the 1973 film of the same name (See Entry). Much of the plot and dialogue of The Last Detail follows that of the original novel, but there are several major differences. Badass’ ex-wife, who is only mentioned in the film, is a character in the novel with whom he is on good terms. Contrary to the ending of the film, in the book, after delivering Meadows to the brig, Badass and Mule, troubled by their part in Meadows’ unfair imprisonment, go AWOL. Finally, Badass is declared dead after a Shore Patrolman knocks him out and Mule is sentenced to prison for three years, which may account for the title of the novel, The Last Detail , which was retained for the film. Badass' name was a reference to an old phrase, “billy badass,” which is a term of jest, contempt or derision, referring to a tough, excessively masculine troublemaker.
       As explained in Var review, the Navy, which did not have a standing police corps, rotated men for temporary security duties, as is depicted in the film when Badass and Mule are assigned as “chasers” to escort Meadows to the prison. As noted in HR and Var reviews, composer Johnny Mandel’s score was interwoven with Navy marches, airs and standards, in particular “American Patrol” and “Anchors Aweigh,” often in an ironic and humorous manner. The Last Detail was groundbreaking in that the script did not overtly call attention to Mule’s race as black, following the precedent of the novel. An anecdote reported in several modern sources states that Nicholson congratulated Young at the end of filming for being the first African American allowed to play a “human being.”
       Many reviews noted the “salty” language of the sailors, but as described in the Var review, the vulgar dialogue added credibility to the story, as it is “part of the eternal environment of men in uniform.” The expletives had been controversial throughout the making of the film, according to modern sources, which stated that Columbia had stalled making the film because of the dialogue and wanted Towne to remove a large percentage of the offensive words from the script.
       Nicholson was nominated for a 1973 Academy Award for Best Actor and Quaid for Best Supporting Actor. The film received a third Academy Award nomination, Towne for Best Adapted Screenplay. Nicholson and Quaid were also nominated for Golden Globes for their performances in The Last Detail , and Nicholson won a BAFTA for Best Actor, as well as other commendations for his performance. Nicholson was named Best Actor at the 1974 Cannes Film Festival, where the film received acclaim.
       According to a 20 Feb 1976 LAT article, Ayres stated that he had been disappointed in the editing for television of his company’s first film, Cisco Pike , and, knowing that The Last Detail would eventually be broadcast, deliberately shot outtakes and covering material that would later be used for the television version. The article, which reported that ABC-TV made one concession by allowing the character Badass to keep his name, also praised Robert C. Jones’s editing of the film for television, stating that the excising of the numerous instances of profanity was accomplished without jarring the listener or creating split-second silences.
       In 2005, Ponicsan wrote a sequel to The Last Detail , entitled Last Flag Flying , in which Badass, whom the author has resurrected, reunites with Mule and Meadows after Meadows’ son is killed in the Iraq War. Various sources from 2005 through 2008 reported that Richard Linklater had been set to direct a film version of the sequel, and that Nicholson and Quaid were interested in reprising their roles. Because Young died in 2001, Morgan Freeman was considering the role of Mule, according to a 2005 DV news item. As of Aug 2009, the project has not reached fruition. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
21 Jan 1974
p. 4658.
Daily Variety
18 Dec 1969.
---
Daily Variety
15 Sep 1972.
---
Daily Variety
12 Nov 1972.
---
Daily Variety
28 Nov 1973.
---
Daily Variety
29 Nov 1973.
---
Daily Variety
12 Apr 2005.
---
GQ
Feb 2008.
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Aug 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
21 Aug 1970.
---
Hollywood Reporter
24 Nov 1972
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
19 Jan 1973
p. 43.
Hollywood Reporter
28 Nov 1973
p. 3.
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
12 Dec 1973.
---
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
10 Feb 1974.
---
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1973
Calendar, p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
20 Feb 1976
Section IV, p. 24.
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
13 Feb 1974
p. 74.
New York Times
11 Feb 1974
p. 50.
New York Times
24 Feb 1974
Section II, p. 1.
New Yorker
11 Feb 1974
pp. 95-96.
Newsweek
11 Feb 1974
p. 86.
Publishers Weekly
14 Aug 1972.
---
Rolling Stone
14 Mar 1974
pp. 70-71.
Time
18 Feb 1974
p. 72.
Variety
22 Nov 1972.
---
Variety
5 Dec 1973
p. 20.
Village Voice
7 Feb 1974
pp. 61-62.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Dir
Asst dir
2d asst dir
2d asst dir
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam asst
Cam asst
Cam asst
Grip
2d grip
Gaffer
Elec
Generator op
ART DIRECTOR
Prod des
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Asst film ed
Asst ed
SET DECORATORS
Scenic
Laborer
COSTUMES
Cost
MUSIC
Mus ed
SOUND
Boom man
Sd mixer standby
MAKEUP
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Casting
Canadian casting
Asst to the prod
Scr supv standby
Unit prod mgr
Unit mgr
Unit mgr, New York
Prod secy
Prod secy
Prod secy
Prod asst, Toronto
Driver capt
Driver
Driver
Driver
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel The Last Detail by Darryl Ponicsan (New York, 1970).
MUSIC
"American Patrol" by F. W. Meacham
"Anchors Aweigh" by Charles A. Zimmerman.
SONGS
"Never Let the Left Hand Know" and "Sing Us Another Song," music and lyrics by Jack Goga
"Good Ole Country Livin'" and 'Nothin' Ever Stays the Same," music and lyrics by Jack Goga and K. Lawrence Dunham
"Don't Believe It" and "Please Come Back," music and lyrics by Ron Nagel
+
SONGS
"Never Let the Left Hand Know" and "Sing Us Another Song," music and lyrics by Jack Goga
"Good Ole Country Livin'" and 'Nothin' Ever Stays the Same," music and lyrics by Jack Goga and K. Lawrence Dunham
"Don't Believe It" and "Please Come Back," music and lyrics by Ron Nagel
"Bad Ass Blues," music and lyrics by Miles Goodman
"Something You Still Haven't Said," music and lyrics by Miles Goodman and Douglas Brayfield.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
February 1974
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles opening: 12 December 1973
New York opening: 10 February 1974
Production Date:
early November 1972--25 January 1973
Copyright Claimant:
Persky-Bright Associates
Copyright Date:
10 December 1973
Copyright Number:
LP43912
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Metrocolor
Duration(in mins):
103 or 105
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
SYNOPSIS

One cold winter, at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval base, two seasoned petty officers, signalman William “Badass” Buddusky, and gunner’s mate “Mule” Mulhall, are assigned to escort a dishonorably discharged seaman, Lawrence M. Meadows, to Portsmouth Military Prison, where he will serve an eight-year sentence. When Badass jests that Meadows must have killed the base commander, the Master-at-Arms explains that Meadows robbed forty dollars from the contribution box of the commander’s wife’s favorite charity, a polio foundation that annually awards her a plaque. Disregarding the men’s stunned expressions, the chief congratulates them for getting assigned to a good detail, which allows a week to deliver Meadows and return, and warns that their careers are in jeopardy if they fail to complete the task. Neither officer is enthusiastic about their assignment, and Mule tells Badass that he hates the detail. However, Badass calculates that Portsmouth can be reached in two days and suggests privately to Mule that they rush Meadows to the prison. They can then return leisurely, spending the extra days and per diem on themselves. Upon meeting Meadows, they are surprised that he is just a cowering eighteen-year-old resigned to his fate, too timid to cause trouble, and on the bus to the train station, they remove his handcuffs. Later, on the train, the officers ask Meadows whether his lengthy sentence was really for stealing forty dollars, and the young man replies that he was actually caught before he was able to take the money. Badass later learns from Meadows that his only prior criminal record was a couple of arrests for shoplifting before he enlisted. Feeling sorry for him, ... +


One cold winter, at the Norfolk, Virginia Naval base, two seasoned petty officers, signalman William “Badass” Buddusky, and gunner’s mate “Mule” Mulhall, are assigned to escort a dishonorably discharged seaman, Lawrence M. Meadows, to Portsmouth Military Prison, where he will serve an eight-year sentence. When Badass jests that Meadows must have killed the base commander, the Master-at-Arms explains that Meadows robbed forty dollars from the contribution box of the commander’s wife’s favorite charity, a polio foundation that annually awards her a plaque. Disregarding the men’s stunned expressions, the chief congratulates them for getting assigned to a good detail, which allows a week to deliver Meadows and return, and warns that their careers are in jeopardy if they fail to complete the task. Neither officer is enthusiastic about their assignment, and Mule tells Badass that he hates the detail. However, Badass calculates that Portsmouth can be reached in two days and suggests privately to Mule that they rush Meadows to the prison. They can then return leisurely, spending the extra days and per diem on themselves. Upon meeting Meadows, they are surprised that he is just a cowering eighteen-year-old resigned to his fate, too timid to cause trouble, and on the bus to the train station, they remove his handcuffs. Later, on the train, the officers ask Meadows whether his lengthy sentence was really for stealing forty dollars, and the young man replies that he was actually caught before he was able to take the money. Badass later learns from Meadows that his only prior criminal record was a couple of arrests for shoplifting before he enlisted. Feeling sorry for him, Badass says the authorities might knock off two years for good behavior, to which Mule is skeptical, but Meadows brightens. Later, the officers discover that Meadows pilfered a candy bar at the station and, despite their lack of concern, the seaman panics and runs down the aisle. After they drag him back, he tearfully confesses that he is always stealing small things. In Washington, the sailors leave the train to allow Meadows time to calm down. Although the younger man has shown little interest in his situation, he mentions that he likes melted cheese on his hamburgers. At a restaurant, when the sandwich is served with a slab of cold cheese, Meadows meekly accepts it, but Badass insists on sending it back to the cook. Later, Badass confronts a bartender for refusing service to the underage Meadows, going so far as to pull out his gun, but Mule intervenes. Outside, Badass revels and proclaims loudly that he is a “bad ass,” then buys beer from a liquor store, which they drink in a parking lot. By then they have missed their train, so they check into a hotel. There, the drinking continues, and Badass, proud of being a signalman, demonstrates semaphore. When Meadows tells Badass that the bartender was only doing his job, Badass asks if he ever feels so enraged that he needs to get it out of his system. Meadows recalls being mad only once, when a Marine guard beat him up in the brig. He relates that the beating did not anger him, but when the guard claimed that he was Jesus Christ and told him not to forget it, Meadows became furious and hoped the chaplain would hear about it. Disturbed by Meadows’ pathetic story, Badass smashes a lamp with his fist. To mollify him, Meadows asks Badass to teach him hand signals. The next day, at Badass’ suggestion, they take Meadows to see his mother in Camden. Mule worries that he might try to escape, but Badass assures him that the kid is secretly glad to go to prison, because he is frightened of the world. Meadows’ mother is not at home, and as they look inside at the slovenly manner in which she lives, Meadows says he would not know what to say to her. After returning to the train, Badass suggests that writing Meadows’ mother’s congressman might help, but Mule says that nothing will help Meadows. He says, they must either release him or he must live with the sentence, but then adds that they cannot release him. Although Mule feels sorry for the injustice of Meadows’ sentence, he sternly tells Badass to stop thinking about the seaman’s plight and recall that the Navy has been good to them. He points out that both of them are “lifers” and they have to do the job. When Badass says he wants to show the kid a good time before he is locked up, Mule counters that doing so will make his eight years harder. In the New York train station, Badass picks a fight with Marines in a men’s room, and Mule and Meadows join in. Afterward they run out to the street and hail a taxi. Badass takes them to a food stand he knows that sells inexpensive but delicious Italian sausages, then introduces Meadows to Heineken beer. Badass then bets their traveling funds in a tavern darts game, winning $63, which he divides three ways. When they hear chanting, Meadows asks to investigate and they follow the sound to a meeting of young American Nichiren Shoshu Buddhists, where the followers testify that chanting changed their lives. Afterward, Meadows chants the phrase he learned, hoping that his situation will improve. The sailors proceed to an adult bookstore, where Meadows admits he is a virgin, then to a pinball arcade, where the seaman, emulating Badass, has a metal tag engraved that identifies him as a Chief Signalman. Later, at an ice rink, Mule and Badass watch paternally as Meadows skates. Claiming that chanting kept him from falling on the ice, Meadows continues to chant under his breath as they proceed to a bar, where Donna, a Shoshu follower, hears and invites them to a party at her apartment. There, in clouds of marijuana smoke, Badass attempts unsuccessfully to seduce a woman with talk about the romance of the sea. A different woman questions Mule about Vietnam, and is reproachful when he says he simply goes where he is told. When Meadows confides to Donna that he is en route to prison, she suggests he take refuge in Canada with someone she knows, but he does not want to cause trouble for Mule and Badass, who are his “best friends.” She then leads him to her bedroom, where, instead of offering him sex, as he hopes, she kneels before an altar and chants fervently. In a Boston diner the next day, Meadows arbitrarily sends his eggs back to the cook. The older men decide Meadows should experience sex before being incarcerated and take him to a brothel. As they wait for him, Badass explains to Mule that his marriage dissolved because his former wife wanted him to be a television repairman. Mule admits he never married but supports his mother, who is proud of his career. Upstairs, when Meadows ejaculates prematurely, the prostitute says her job is done. However, Badass and Mule pay for Meadows to have a second chance and this time he succeeds. Afterward, in the remaining time before Meadows is due at the prison, they go to a park to roast hot dogs in the snow, because Meadows suggests a picnic. After eating, Meadows chants, as Badass reminisces about his love of the sea. Badass remarks proudly on Meadows’ transformation and when Mule announces they must now deliver him, Badass worries that he will not be able to survive the “sadistic” Marine guards. As they talk, Meadows slips away and, from across the park, uses semaphore to signal, “By By” then runs away. They chase him across the park and must use their combined strength to subdue him. During the rest of the trip, Badass and Mule must keep a sharp eye on the weeping Meadows, who now realizes how much his freedom means. Later, at the prison, Meadows is dragged away behind heavily barred, steel doors. The Marine in charge of admittance, who saw scratches and bruises on Meadows that were caused when the officers apprehended him, accuses Mule and Badass of abusing the prisoner. However, when he asks if Meadows offered resistance or tried to escape, Mule and Badass state that he did not. The Marine continues to harass them and tells them that their orders to leave Norfolk had not been properly signed, but eventually permits them to leave. Outside, the angry Badass fumes about the arrogant Marine and others like him, while Mule once again says how much he hates the detail. As they march off in unison, Badass talks about going to New York and Mule to Baltimore, before they report back at the base. +

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Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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