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It's good, almost too good... why did they keep it a secret?
I can't say that this was the optimum week to debut a Bill Cosby film on Blu-ray, but crime movies as good as this one are rare. Hickey & Boggs sees its two unappreciated actors in what may be their best roles. Cosby's co-star Robert Culp directs splendidly, and it's a shame that it's his only film in that capacity. Although Sam Peckinpah was Culp's mentor, this picture beats most of Peckinpah's later movies, hands down.
With a great script by Walter Hill, Hickey & Boggs is an early '70s detective classic blessed with major graces that make it a first rank neo-noir. Fans of Cosby and Culp may have difficulty with the film's unrelieved pessimism, but it's a fitting tone for a story about partners learning the hard way that their profession "isn't about anything anymore."
The setting is Los Angeles, the seedy side. Private detectives Al Hickey and Frank Boggs (Bill Cosby and Robert Culp) are in a sorry state. Both are separated from hostile wives; their shabby detective agency is so hard-pressed for cash that the phone company will let them receive phone calls but not make them. A job to locate a missing girl named Mary Ann lands them in the middle of a drug deal, a complicated kill-off for a million dollars that involves loan sharks, mob operatives, professional hit men and radical revolutionaries. The cops are also on their case, but their partnership perseveres to the bitter and violent end.
Hickey & Boggs received its share of praise in print reviews but was a complete bust in the theaters. Sadly, the Cosby-Culp teaming from television's I Spy didn't bring in the fans; audiences primed for something witty and light were likely turned off by the grim adventures of the most dour pair of private detectives ever put on screen. Cosby broods about his estranged family and his wife (Rosalind Cash) sees no reconciliation in the cards. Culp veers toward alcoholism, staring in a drunken stupor as his ex-wife, a stripper, taunts him from the runway: "Eat your heart out." The partners meet in bars to discuss the miserable condition of their business. They do trade occasional smart-talk, but the joy of it all slipped away somehow.
Walter Hill's screenplay rakes the detective genre over the coals. Forget glamour, as these guys drive junker cars and are having difficulty making the rent. As with Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, it works best for refined genre fans that know their Raymond Chandlers from Burke's Law and can appreciate Hickey & Boggs' fall from grace. These boys want to be Chandler's white knight of good, but luck is not on their side. The landscape itself seems against them,. An old apartment buildings becomes a trap, and the wide-open spaces of the Coliseum becomes an arena for a machine gun battle. The bland-but-deadly California sunshine analogy goes further in a scene set on a fancy property literally left hanging out over an ocean-side cliff. Nothing in Hickey & Boggs is particularly stable.
The partners soon realize that they are being used by their criminal clients, who are also selling each other out. The man who hires them to track down Mary Ann (who turns out to be not a lost girl but a ruthless drug runner) is introduced as a child molester. Al Hickey barely registers the gravity of that revelation. As they get sucked into the workings of a major crime ring, no code of honor or oath to a suffering widow keeps them on the case. They repeatedly complain that their profession has become meaningless, yet persist out of simple bull-headedness and a need to assert their self-identity. If they wouldn't change jobs to save their marriages, they'll be damned if a bunch of criminal scum can make them quit sleuthing.
The casting is excellent, with director Robert Culp effortlessly guiding his characters through good genre situations. Hickey & Boggs reminds us a bit of the revisionist malaise in Peckinpah's TV show The Westerner: all the characters seem sick of lifestyles limited by genre conventions. Michael Moriarity, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter, Bill Hickman and James Woods have impressive early career bit parts as various cops and hitmen. Convincing Latins Mary Ann (Carmen) and her revolutionary lover Quemando (Louis Moreno) become sympathetic as they struggle to elude an onslaught of avaricious mobsters.
Neither the cops nor the detectives can handle the new level of violence -- bad guys use machine guns; Moriarity fires a military-caliber machine gun from a helicopter. All four sides of the intrigue -- crooks, revolutionaries, cops and detectives -- underestimate each other. The old rules have seemingly been suspended: killings aren't restricted to dark alleys. The shoot-outs happen in broad daylight, in public places. Excellent Los Angeles location filming concentrates on few recognizable locales but carries the burnt-out flavor of the L.A. streets: everyone is out for himself. Location truck and camera system magnate Faoud Said was a producer on the picture, so the fluidity of filming in all those locations makes sense. 1
Despite a dandy concluding battle on a beach, Hickey & Boggs was probably too much of a downer to appeal to wide audiences. I doubt that they smile once during the entire show. 2 Even 'realistic' action pictures of the time had a humorous side; heavy-duty downer cop shows like Badge 373 and The Friends of Eddie Coyle passed quietly. One scene shows Hickey suffering a blow to his family that makes his whole life go sour. From that point forward he seems to be operating on automatic pilot. In the final showdown our heroes go through the motions propelled only by existential inertia. Commercially speaking this was surely a mistake. As the self-contradictory film sage said, even uncompromising nihilistic downer pictures need to give the audience a laugh or two. Hickey and Boggs are so cool it would have been great to see a sequel.
Did United Artists give Hickey & Boggs a decent promotional effort? One would think that in 1972 a movie with known stars Bill Cosby and Robert Culp would at least 'open'. The producing entity named on the first credit is "Film Guarantors Inc." Does this mean that Hickey & Boggs was repossessed by a bank? If not, somebody chose company names badly. How about "Morty's Pawn Shop presents"? The real tragedy here is Culp making his directing debut and swansong in just one movie. I think it was his real calling. His direction can stand alongside any genre filmmaker's and dwarfs most of the later work of his screenwriter Walter Hill. It's a shame that this joyless but superior effort didn't win him a wider career.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Hickey & Boggs is the version of the show we've waited for, after a bootleg in 2004 and a so-so MGM Limited Edtition DVD-R in 2011. The clean scan flatters Bill Butler's cinematography of the L.A. streets and interiors across the city; one of the mobsters has an office with ugly yellow tinted windows that reminds me of a 'swank' Sunset Blvd. office I once projected in. Ted Asheford's spare score comes across well on the clear soundtrack.
The disc has no extras, which is a shame because there must have been a lot of behind the scenes stories on this picture. Robert Culp passed away a few seasons back but was able to attend an American Cinematheque screening of Hickey and Boggs and see it applauded by a new audience. Made too soon to capitalize on the neo-noir craze, his show is one of the few that communicates the darkest depths of hardboiled detective fiction.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hickey & Boggs Blu-ray rates:
1. One flavorful scene for vintage Angelenos occurs when the detectives take a short break at the famed original Pink's Hot Dogs. It's at La Brea and Melrose, about a mile from Savant Headquarters. I had my first Pink's dog in 1971, when Randy Cook took me there before a Technicolor double bill of Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St. Louis at the Encore Theater. In Hickey & Boggs we see only the server's hands and apron amid pots steaming with the smell of onions. I can tell that they belong to a particular unsmiling employee, one that seemed to be on duty at Pink's night and day without a break. He was nice but always wore this incredibly mean look on his face. He should have been a local celebrity. Was his name Steve?
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T'was Ever Thus.