‘The Last Detail’: Hal Ashby and Robert Towne’s Slice of the ’70s America

By Sven Mikulec

It was Robert Towne, one of the greatest script doctors that Hollywood has ever seen, that wrote the adaptation of Darryl Ponicsan’s 1970 novel called ‘The Last Detail.’ Towne, who would go on and only a year later pen what a lot of people call one of the best scripts ever created in Tinseltown—Chinatown, joined forces with filmmaker Hal Ashby, who needed a hit after his Harold and Maude flunked at the box office, being too bizarre for the average cinemagoer. The result of their collaboration was The Last Detail, the 1973 comedy-drama that tells the story of two Navy officers assigned to escort a sailor to jail. This poor teenage soul tried to steal forty dollars from a collection box of his Commanding Officer’s wife’s charity, and now had to face eight years in prison. Two officers decide to give him the time of his life in his last hours as a free man. Towne’s screenplay is unexpectedly profane (the word ‘fuck’ is probably used more times here than in all other box office hits of the decade combined), humorous, but heartbreaking and tragic, and displays skillful character development and well-woven analysis of the American society. The Last Detail is greatly helped by a completely dedicated performance from the film’s only star, Jack Nicholson, a proven actor whose effort hardly went unnoticed, as he garnered one of the film’s three Academy Award nominations, as well as triumphed at Cannes. Nicholson was so excited about the project that he passed on the role that Robert Redford eventually played in The Sting, and was later admittedly saddened by the fact that the Academy failed to honor what he saw as his best performance up to that point.

From the aesthetic point of view, The Last Detail has a certain washed-up, documentaristic quality, breathing in the air of harsh realism in the atmosphere. This is mostly cinematographer Michael Chapman to thank for; the talented director of photography who gained this spot on The Last Detail because director Ashby couldn’t get Haskell Wexler, Nestor Almendros or Gordon Willis to do the job. Chapman worked on Ashby’s The Landlord as a camera operator, and used The Last Detail as a stepping stone that would lead him to Taxi Driver, The Last Waltz, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Raging Bull. Enhanced by the musical score of Johnny Mandel (who could forget his ‘Suicide Is Painless’ from M*A*S*H) and the first critically acclaimed performance of Randy Quaid, The Last Detail tells the story of America of the early seventies, of the little people escaping poverty to find some sort of a life in the navy, of lonely souls wandering the night in search of meaning and purpose. This is one of those beautiful movies that make you laugh, only to deliver a blow to your stomach without you even noticing it.

A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: Robert Towne’s screenplay for The Last Detail [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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The following is an excerpt from Lennon, E.: The Screenplays of Robert Towne 1960-2000.

While the late Sixties were a dark era for America on the political front at home and abroad, they proved a time of great cinematic experimentation—while the studios were drained of money. In the wake of BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), many more American filmmakers took up the baton from European filmmakers and tried to make ‘art’ from a necessarily commercial product. David A. Cook comments, “it had seemed for a time that America was headed for a major cinematic (and social) renaissance. But neither came to pass.” He adds that neither Arthur Penn nor Sam Peckinpah made a film to equal their late Sixties achievements (although, in the case of Peckinpah, it could be argued that BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (1974) and CROSS OF IRON (1977) are equal, if not superior, cinematic pleasures).

THE LAST DETAIL could be said to be part of the new wave of American cinema that was begun with BONNIE AND CLYDE: Peter Biskind claims it as part of the first wave of those films produced by “white men born in the mid-to late ‘30s (occasionally earlier)… Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Coppola, Warren Beatty, Stanley Kubrick, Dennis Hopper, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Bob Fosse, Robert Benton, Arthur Penn, John Cassavetes, Alan Pakula, Paul Mazursky, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby, William Friedkin, Robert Altman, and Richard Lester.” Those whom Biskind would classify as second-wavers are the ‘movie brats,’ Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, John Milius, Paul Schrader, Brian De Palma and Terrence Malick. The revolution may have been televised but it was also being preserved on celluloid and the output of these writers and directors has meant that ever since the Seventies has been seen as the last gasp of the golden age of cinema.

One of the complicating issues concerning the reading of any film text is a consideration of the times in which it was produced, and the industrial situation of the film business. As a consequence of the outer culture, concerned with youth issues and the Vietnam War, feminism and problems in the Nixon administration (which would later blow up into the infamous Watergate scandal), it is appropriate to give equal consideration to the impact these had on the decisions taken at Columbia Pictures regarding THE LAST DETAIL. While it was obvious that the potential audience could not be actually offended by the material, the excessive use of the word ‘Fuck’ was an issue for studio brass. The overwhelming changes that dominated studio decisions had been imminent since about 1965. As Schatz points out, “the rules of filmmaking and the marketplace changed so drastically” between then and 1975.

Adaptation had already been proven to be a Towne speciality. DETAIL would require some specialised treatment. After doctoring and appearing in DRIVE, HE SAID, for debutant director Nicholson, Towne was hired for the project by producer Gerald Ayres, who recalled, ‘He had this ability, in every page he wrote and rewrote, to leave a sense of moisture on the page, as if he just breathed on it in some way. There was always something that jostled your sensibilities, that made the reading of the page not just a perception of plot, but the feeling that something accidental and true to the life of a human being had happened there.’

Towne took to the job with gusto when Ayres persuaded top brass at Columbia Pictures to take him on, on the basis of his Special Consultant credit for BONNIE AND CLYDE. The project was a favourite of Nicholson’s, whose star was rapidly on the rise:

Part of the incentive of the project was that Jack’s part would be equal and set against that of the other Navy lifer, a black sailor. It would be an actor’s showdown between Nicholson and Rupert Crosse, his and Towne’s mutual friend.

Darryl Ponicsan’s novel was first published in the United States in 1970. It tells the story of petty officer Billy ‘Bad Ass’ Budduksy who receives orders to escort a petty thief to the brig (prison) and decides to show him a good time before he is behind bars at the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Naval Prison. The ‘thief’ isn’t much of a criminal at all: he tried to make away with forty dollars from the favourite charity of the General’s wife and didn’t succeed. Buddusky reckons they can deliver the boy very quickly and parlay the trip into a holiday but his conscience gets the better of him and he turns the trip into a sentimental education for Meadows. When it appears that Buddusky might suffer from the association with Meadows, he cuts his ties with the young sailor and abandons him to his fate. However, Buddusky and his fellow gaoler, a black sailor called Mulhall (or ‘Mule’) fail to report Meadows’ inevitable escape attempt and after delivering him they go AWOL before their planned return to base but Buddusky is killed in the ensuing fracas. The trip turns out to have been his last detail for the American Navy.

The novel consists of nine chapters and an epilogue; the Signet paperback movie tie-in edition published by the New England Library runs to one hundred and forty-two pages.

Inevitably, while we were making the film, we considered changing the ending so that Nicholson would let the kid escape. But I thought that would really be letting the audience off the hook. The audience must be left with the problem, because ninety nine out of a hundred people in the audience—maybe a hundred out of a hundred—would have done what Nicholson did in the movie and taken the kid to prison, rather than risk their own skin. So I thought it would be completely dishonest of us to send the audience out of the theatre with a warm glow thinking: ‘Gee the world is full of nice people.’

The overall shape of the screenplay for DETAIL is that of the novel, albeit in necessarily shortened form. The original screenplay is 135 pages long (the revised draft runs to 131 pages) and the finished film runs approximately 110 minutes. Many of the scenes (up to 45 pages of them, in fact) were shortened or dropped altogether from the released version of the film. All of the revisions to the first draft are dated 15 August. Towne is mainly faithful to the principal thrust of the book, namely the relationship between Buddusky and Meadows. He says: “Nicholson is flattered by the fact that this young, rather sick kid looks up to him as a surrogate father figure. So Nicholson takes him places and shows him things. But when it looks as though all of this might really cost Nicholson something, he just turns around and says ‘It’s my job.’ Even though he is aware his attitude is fundamentally corrupt and cowardly.”

Towne radically altered Ponicsan’s Camus-loving protagonist with his beyond-beautiful wife and recast him as a more ultimately compromised man, adding him to the gallery of unformed underachievers that populates his screenplays: J.J. Gittes in CHINATOWN, George Roundy in SHAMPOO, Mac in TEQUILA SUNRISE. All of these men are compromised in their need for the means to survive. Of these characters, it could be said that Buddusky (certainly in Towne’s interpretation of the original character as conceived by Ponicsan) is actually the least tragic (he does not succumb to the fate administered in Ponicsan’s novel, thereby rendering the title meaningless!), the most pragmatic—and the most well-adjusted. Towne’s interpretation of Buddusky aligns him in the vanguard of New Hollywood in its politicised, anti-authoritarian heyday. While his work on the film was undoubtedly influenced by his producer and director (particularly, it seems, by Ashby), it copperfastened his position as upcoming screenwriter in the early Seventies. —Lennon, E.: The Screenplays of Robert Towne 1960-2000. Dublin Institute of Technology, 2009



The legendary writer of Chinatown discusses his life as a Hollywood screenwriter.

“I was born in Ogden, Utah, the last of four children. Mom and Dad divorced when I was five or six. Dad killed himself when I was 12. I struggled toward growing up, like others, totally confused. Married and divorced twice before I made it to 21. Hitchhiked to Los Angeles when I was 17. Had about 50 or 60 jobs up to the time I was working as a Multilith operator at good old Republic Studios.” —Hal Ashby

The temptation, when writing about American filmmaker Hal Ashby, is to reduce his life and career to any of a number of ready-made, Hollywood formulae: the small-town boy done good who works his way up from the studio mailroom to the Academy Awards stage; the 1960s free spirit who champions individual rights in a world of oppressive authority and takes his fair share of lumps in the process; the cautionary tale of regrettable indulgences and falls from grace. Unfortunately, the relative dearth of critical and biographical writing currently available about Ashby makes such a trap unavoidable. This, despite the awards, the misty paeans from his collaborators and, most importantly, that amazing streak of films in the 1970s, a streak that rivals those of his more famous contemporaries, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Altman. With The Landlord (1970), Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978) and Being There (1979), Ashby proved himself a prodigious talent. —Darren Hughes, Senses of Cinema



Legendary cinematographer Michael Chapman discusses his work on The Last Detail.

My first film as Director of Photography

The Last Detail was the first movie that I was the DP on, and I was asked by Hal Ashby, who… have we said all this before? I can’t be… and who had been… we’d done a movie in the East and used Gordie [Gordon Willis] as the cameraman and I, as the operator and knew me from that, and for various reasons Gordie couldn’t do it and there had to be an East Coast cameraman because the unions were separate in those days, so Haskell [Wexler] was going to do it but, but he couldn’t because he wasn’t in the East Coast Union, and he’d done a movie with… with Hal, so he… so Gordie, I think, told Hal to go ahead, use Chappie—he’ll be all right—and he… and he asked me to do it, knowing in part that I… that I at least was a very good operator. And of course I said yes, you know, who… who wouldn’t, and I found myself… I owe Hal a lot, I mean it really… there was no rational reason to ask me to do that in terms of experience, I’d really lit a few commercials at best. But he did and I said yes, terrified, and thinking that I was going to be found out, you know, every time that the dailies came, I.. I was like, oh my God, they’re going to find out that I don’t know what I’m doing and they’re going to fire me. And they didn’t, and I, as I think I said, or have said certainly, I sort of went around and looked at all the locations in Toronto and in… in various places before shooting.

I saw that since they were all real locations, with, I think, one exception, a hotel room that we built, the… the light in those actual locations was far more emotionally charged and evocative than anything I could much do. So I very happily left them alone because I was terrified that if I put any light I wouldn’t know what the hell I was doing, and I left the light of the… the men’s room in the railroad station, the bar, the whatever it was, the little lunch counter somewhere in Washington DC, be what it was. The light came through the windows, the light was there and it was evocative of a real place and… because it was a real place, and… and I did as little as I possibly could to disturb the reality of that place, and that turned out to be, I think, a good decision a) it kept me from getting fired, and b) it made the movie look, as I think I’ve said, like the 11 o’clock news, which is just right for the emotional content of that movie.

And again, that was, I mean I guess I was smart enough to figure it out, but it was in a large part a… a happy accident that that was the first movie I… I did. If I’d had some incredibly complicated costume drama, where everything had to be lit and beautiful movie stars had to be made to look gorgeous, then they really would have fired me, I would think. But it turned out that this movie matched what little skills I had at the time. But nonetheless, I mean, you’re working with Jack Nicholson. Oh, I was working with Jack Nicholson, yes, script by Robert Towne, I was way outside of my… I mean, by the way, the fact that the movie is the success and has entered the cannon of movies is not because of my lighting, it’s because of a script by Robert Towne and the acting of Jack Nicholson and Randy Quaid and various people. It’s a marvel—and the direction of Hal Ashby—it’s a marvelous movie, a marvelous movie, and it holds up very well and it’s shown all the time. It’s also one of the… it’s the first dirty word movie, it’s the first movie where, you know, famous lines,’ I am the motherfucking shore patrol, you motherfucker’, was the first time somebody could say that, and… and it’s famous for those things, or it was famous at the time for those things, for breaking barriers and things like that. Oh, it was a marvelous movie, and not because of my lighting, please!”

Memories of filming The Last Detail

“Because it was my first movie, it… it… I can close my eyes and remember all sorts of things very, very vividly. There’s a scene at the end where they… where Randy Quaid is going to run away in… in this… in the snow, and we shot that in a park in Seattle, in a kind of slum area of… not Seattle, of Toronto, in a sort of down and dirty area of Toronto that was supposed to look like Boston, and they’re going to have a picnic in the snow, and they’re freezing cold, and it was very, very cold and awful and we all had warm clothes on, but the poor actors who had to… you know, they had to wear pea-coats and… and sort of simple black shoes, like navy seals, they were dying of the cold, just dying, and their faces were… what was the third guy’s name? I can’t remember… he was a black guy… what the hell was his name? Pretty much disappeared but I… I can’t think of his name. Anyway, he was so cold that his skin became kind of grey; it was… it was very strange to see. They were dying of the cold. And they had to act, you know, and I ran along with them and when… when Randy runs away I ran… hand held the camera, running through the snow with them. It was… every, almost any part of it was so exciting and so new and so charged with terror… and other emotions, but mostly terror for me that I… I’m not sure I have any one thing in [The] Last Detail. It’s all a very… more vivid to me than movies I made two or three years ago, really, because it was so… such a turning point in my life, you know, and as I’ve said, I was so scared, oh God. And… and it’s also marvel… you know, I am… there’s a scene in a bar when he throws the thing down, and I… has those famous lines: ‘I am the mother fucking shore patrol you mother fucker’, and all that. It was wonderful, I mean, just when I just was in awe, that was really Jack Nicholson, you know, he was right there. And then I acted with him in… in a scene in Boston, I mean it was… it was marvelous. You… how could you resist that sort of thing, you know, I certainly couldn’t, and that… and as I say, the next one, [The] White Dawn, I really… I thought, my God, I’ve found my place in life, and this is what… obviously what I was meant to do, and I had no idea I was meant to do it, but I clearly was.” —Michael Chapman



“Laid-back, doobie-inclined, scruffy and shooting from the hip mavericks: while many of his peers went on to much greater success in the 1970s—Steven Spielberg, Warren Beatty, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, etc.—perhaps no one director typfies the groovy, uber-chill Easy Riders and Raging Bulls generation of filmmakers more than Hal Ashby.” A short documentary on Ashby made after his death. Included in the Coming Home (1978) DVD.

Open YouTube video

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. Photographed by Charles Moore © Columbia Pictures, Bright-Persky Associates, Acrobat Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

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