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Hickey & Boggs
A minor detective classic from the early 70s with a lot of major qualities gets a very weak DVD release. Fans of Bill Cosby, Robert Culp and Walter Hill will perhaps want to take their chances with the disc anyway.
Hickey and Boggs got lots of praise in print but was a complete bust in the theaters. Sadly, the Cosby-Culp teaming from television didn't bring in the fans; audiences primed for something witty and light must have been completely turned off by the grim adventures of two of the most dour private detectives ever put on screen. Cosby broods about his estranged family and his wife (Rosalind Cash) doesn't see reconciliation in the cards. Culp veers toward alcoholism and watches in a drunken stupor while his ex-wife, a stripper, taunts him from the runway: "Eat your heart out." The partners meet in bars to discuss the miserable state of their business. I doubt they they smile once during the whole show.
Walter Hill's screenplay is a critique of the detective genre. Like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, it works best for the refined genre fan who knows his Raymond Chandlers from his Burke's Law and can appreciate Hickey and Boggs' fall from grace.
Instead of helping anybody as detective should, the partners immediately know that they are being cynically used by criminal clients. The man who hires them to track down Mary Ann (who turns out to be not a lost girl but a ruthless drug runner and) is introduced as a child molester. Al Hickey barely registers the obviousness of that. As they get sucked into what looks like a major crime ring, no code of honor or oath to a suffering widow keeps them on the case. Even though they comment that "this job doesn't mean anything anymore," they hang in there out of simple obstinancy and a need to assert their self identity. If they wouldn't quit sleuthing to save their marriages, they'll be damned if a bunch of criminal scum can make them.
The stakes get higher as all four sides of the intrigue - crooks, revolutionaries, cops and detectives - underestimate each other and the violence escalates. Excellent Los Angeles location filming concentrates on few recognizable locales but carries the flavor of the burnt-out malice of the LA streets. 1 There's a standout broad-daylight shootout in a giant football stadium that credibly shows what might happen if a drug drop was interrupted with high-powered rifles and machine guns.
The casting is excellent, with director Robert Culp (a long-time pal of Sam Peckinpah) effortlessly guiding his characters through good genre situations; Hickey & Boggs reminds a bit of the revisionist malaise in Peckinpah's TV show The Westerner. Michael Moriarity, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter and James Woods have impressive early career bit parts as various cops and hit-men. Mary Ann (Carmen) and her revolutionary lover Quemando (Louis Moreno) are convincing Latins who become sympathetic trying to clear their deal against a tide of avaricious mobsters.
There's plenty of violence and a dandy concluding shootout on a beach, but Hickey & Boggs was probably just too much of a downer to appeal to wide audiences. 2 Action pictures of the time tended to be broader fantasies with humor and a lighter touch; heavy-duty cop shows like Badge 373 and The Friends of Eddie Coyle passed quietly. There's a scene in the picture where Hickey suffers a blow to his family and his whole life goes sour; from that point on there's little hope of anything pleasant happening. By the time of the final showdown our heroes seem to be going through the motions propelled only by existential inertia.
Robert Culp's direction can stand alongside any genre filmmaker's and dwarfs the later work of his screenwriter Walter Hill. It's possible that movie directing was Culp's real calling, and it's a shame this joyless but superior effort didn't work out for him.
AIP's DVD of Hickey and Boggs is barely professional quality. The image is grainy and has lots of jumps as if it were a temp transfer from a spliced print. There are frequent old-style analog video hits that make it look as if it might have been mastered from a 3/4 or even a VHS copy of the movie. The color is flat, although the image looks to have been hit with some form of enhancement - some scenes look fairly attractive, although the dark bar interiors don't fare very well.
The crowning flaw is time compression. Culp and Cosby's voices are too high in pitch, action is crisp and accelerated, and the 111 minute show is over in just under 107 minutes without any obvious missing scenes. I think it's a PAL transfer converted back to NTSC. I have an okay VHS of the film taped from the TCM channel on a night with just fair cable reception: It looks and plays better.
The gross editorial goof in the cover text doesn't add to one's confidence. 3
Hickey & Boggs is a superior picture that many fans want to see. If one is willing to settle for sub-graymarket quality while waiting for a "real" DVD release, this disc may be acceptable. I only hope that the film is not Public Domain. If that's the case, then this release may make an official disc mastered from better source material an uncommercial prospect.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hickey & Boggs rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2004
1. Location-truck and camera system magnate Faoud Said produced the picture, so the fluidity of filming makes sense.
2. It's also possible that UA lacked confidence in the movie and distributed it weakly; you'd think a movie with Cosby and Culp would at least open.
3. The cover text reads: "They're not cool slick heroes. They're worn, tough men and that's that (sic) makes them so dangerous." I make goofs like that five times in a web review, but this is the cover of a DVD, for Pete's sake.