Tuesday Editor’s Pick: “The Last Detail” (1973)

by on May 23, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Tue May 30 at  6:15 and 9:50 at at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]


Blogger (and Alt Screen paramour) Andy McCarthy at The Shine Box:

Hal Ashby knows how to draw forth Jack’s knack for the physicality of madness (Five Easy Pieces spazz-out in the front seat, axe work in The Shining ), Jack’s raunch eloquence (Cuckoo’s Nest hobohemian, camp bigotry of The Departed), and the cool, composed manner of ease when stuck with the insuperable condition of the world (varsity sweatshirt lawyer in Easy Rider, identity-thief media agent in The Passenger, King of Marvin Gardens maverick literati). Which is also to suggest the understated depth of Jack’s character, “Bad Ass” Buddusky. A true counterculture movie, where the subject of rebellion, alienation, the bare urge to uprise, is traced from the inside-out – three Navy guys who have each chosen their own imprisonment in order to cope with a chaotic universe. There is an ecstasy found in beating back those prison walls as if they were not the only choice for these navy boys.  Buddy existentialism, just enough profound and just enough hilarious.




Our critic Dan Callahan finds The Last Detail one of Ashby’s more impersonal works, but Ashby’s biographer Nick Dawson explains in Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel:

While The Landlord and Harold and Maude shared a certain playful, rebellious spirit, The Last Detail, with its stark realism and emotional sparseness, did not seem much like “a Hal Ashby film.” Yet by moving beyond the broad humor of his earlier films and attempting to empathize with characters he didn’t naturally connect with, Ashby had matured greatly as a filmmaker.
His directing has been criticized for being light-handed, but Towne’s script was so densely written that it allowed little space for a director’s ego to intrude, and the directorial restraint, in fact, feels just right. Ashby appears in a cameo, as a man sitting at the bar watching with obvious pleasure as a Nicholson plays darts, and the scene is an apt analogy for his approach to directing. Whenever possible, he let his actors go, guiding them only when necessary. The results were sensational.


Director Wes Anderson considers it his favorite of Ashby’s ouevre. Anderon discusses its influence on The Darjeeling Limited with Good, and again with Charlie Rose.


Richard Armstrong for Senses of Cinema:

One of the most interesting aspects of that era of generational change we now call ‘New Hollywood’ was the way American cinema seemed to become more ‘American’ in scope and content. The way films such as Bonnie And Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967), Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper, 1969), The Last Picture Show (Peter Bogdanovich, 1971) and Paper Moon (Bogdanovich, 1973) looked and sounded evoked an American national cinema steeped in real histories and vernacular sensibilities. The “tight, clean, knowing” quality of The Last Detail comes across like a salty anecdote told by an ex-sailor in a New York bar.


The Last Detail has none of the vivacity of a society in triumphant post-war overdrive. Less interested in the traditional metaphor for movie-going pleasure suggested by the MGM sailors’ hi-jinks, the prospect of ambivalent petty officers going on a hootenanny whilst escorting a rating to the brig is staged in a workaday society in the grip of quiet desperation. Whilst On The Town revelled in a fantasy of off-duty love and anarchy, The Last Detail sees unremitting duty and unpitying authority as the average Joe’s American legacy. Few films have such a sense of time running out, an obsession with finitude that renders each coarse naturalistic second poignant.



The Playlist crew over at Indiewire:

God damn if Jack Nicholson didn’t have one of the greatest runs an actor could have in the early 1970s… and slap in the middle  was Hal Ashby’s wondrous The Last Detail. Nicholson stars, in a role that fits like a glove… Like a real-world version of On The Town, Nicholson and Young decide to give Meadows a proper send off, full of sex and drinking, and it’s this realism that makes the film sing: the script, by Robert Towne, is never rose-tinted: it’s clear that Nicholson’s quest is making things worse, rather than better, and however much the men might bond, it doesn’t last, as the fiercely unsentimental ending makes clear. It’s a film for which the term ‘bittersweet,’ a term that Ashby firmly made his own, was invented.


Odienator for The House Next Door:

The story goes that Columbia Pictures passed on M*A*S*H because “people don’t say ‘fuck’ in movies from Columbia Pictures.” The Last Detail is a Columbia Picture, and as befitting the naval occupation of its main characters, every other word is some variation of For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.The journey is filled with prostitutes, drinking, swearing, fighting, betrayal of trust and more honesty than most contemporary movies could muster in a single frame.


Ashby’s movies meander, and they all meander differently. Detail takes its time; it knows this is the last taste of freedom and youth for Meadows, and Towne and Ashby want us to savor every moment. And who better to show one how to party than Jack? Buddusky is the role he was born to play, and for my money, he has never been better. In Meadows, he finds a symbiotic connection between his willing donation of youth to the Navy and Meadows’s forced surrender of his. Nicholson fights with his anger at the situation and his unerring sense of duty; when the aforementioned betrayal of trust comes, it raises the question of whose trust has been betrayed. Is it Meadows betraying his mentors? Is it Buddusky betraying his own feelings in service to a hated authority? Watch how Jack plays the scene where Meadows pitifully begs “please let me go,” as well as the chanting scene (which features Gilda Radner) in the film. Beneath the swearing and the bravado, there’s a lot going on; there always is with Jack.


Nick Dawson again, on the film’s regular deployment of the F-bomb:

By August, a final cut of The Last Detail had been completed and submitted to the MPAA, [who] thought it the “finest picture of the year without contest.” Despite such an endorsement from so conservative and organization, Columbia was unhappy with the film and asked for twenty-six lines with the word “fuck” in them to be cut.
Ashby and Towne were understandably resistant. During a meeting at Columbia, Towne explained that within the structure of the armed services, the protagonists were rendered essentially impotent, that all they could do was complain and swear. However, the Columbia executives were concerned only with the number of obscenities and explained that, while they did not want to emasculate the film, they had to do something about the “very, very strong” language. “We want you to do something about it,” they said, “We want you to help us with it, because we feel we can reach a broader mass audience that way.”
“Wait a minute,” said Ashby, “you’re telling me that if the word ‘fuck’ is used eighty times in the film and if we cut it down to forty times, we’re going to reach a broader audience?”
“I don’t even know that the hell you’re talking about.”





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