Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hickey & Boggs (1972)

          Screenwriter Walter Hill arrived in a big way with the release of 1972’s The Getaway, a Sam Peckinpah hit starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw, but his actual cinematic debut slipped in below the radar just months before The Getaway opened. Directed by and starring Robert Culp, Hickey & Boggs is an early example of the black cop/white cop buddy-movie formula that became ubiquitous after the release of 48 Hrs. (1982), which was directed by none other than Walter Hill. Costarring Culp’s old I Spy sparring partner Bill Cosby, Hickey & Boggs represents Hill’s spare screenwriting style at its most extreme; the characters are enigmatic figures only vaguely differentiated from each other, so they collectively form a vision of a violent, unforgiving universe in which personal identity is irrelevant since everyone’s headed for oblivion sooner rather than later. Still, the glimmers of character that peek through the opaque storytelling are intriguing, especially the nonjudgmental assertions that Culp’s character is gay.
          The plot concerns two pathetic private detectives (Culp and Cosby) who are hired to find a missing girl. The case, naturally, leads them to a bigger mystery. What’s really at stake is a pile of money that was stolen from a bank in Pittsburgh, but who stole the money, how it arrived in L.A. (where the movie takes place), and who’s scheming to get the money is never explained particularly well. Fortunately, the actual narrative takes a backseat to ice-cold attitude. The picture showcases not only the casual dynamic between Culp and Cosby, but also the fact that Culp had more to offer than his career’s worth of middling credits suggests. Onscreen, he’s a cynical rogue with an offbeat approach to delivering dialogue, and behind the camera, he seems interested in combining macho minimalism with unusual character work. Had Hickey & Boggs connected with audiences, it might have opened interesting doors for Culp as a filmmaker, but it’s unsurprising that neither critics nor viewers latched onto a film so cryptic that it plays out like a depressing inside joke.
          Some of Culp’s directorial choices are downright bewildering, like his frequently employed technique of connecting scenes without establishing shots or other transitions, which jars viewers’ sense of place; similarly, he often fixes his camera on minor details during scenes, forgetting to show major actions that would help provide clarity. Still, this is individualistic stuff, even if, ultimately, Hicky & Boggs is hard to follow and even harder to connect with on emotional level. It’s also worth mentioning, by the way, that several established and/or up-and-coming character players show up in the cast: Watch for Rosalind Cash, Vincent Gardenia, Ed Lauter, Robert Mandan, Michael Moriarty, Isabel Sanford, and even a young James Woods. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on

Hickey & Boggs: FUNKY


Dale said...

Admittedly hard to follow in places,this is still a favorite of mine. Maybe it's the effect of tarnishing the I SPY team(though the Cosby scandal has tarnished everything he ever did). The fact that in classic early 70s fashion,nobody cares,nothing means nothing. But if Culp's gay here,why does he keep going to the topless club to stare at and take abuse from his ex wife?

Jeff said...

“Al Hickey: [following the final shootout] Nobody came... nobody cares. It's still not about anything.
Frank Boggs: Yeah, you told me.”

The heroes are not slick, perfect men (I know I got this from the movie poster). They aren't very good shots with their revolvers (a refreshing change of pace actually) and they more or less stumble onto many of the leads in the course of their investigation. When the story ends they haven't accomplished anything except to kill the three mob soldiers and a mid-level "manager" who dog them throughout the story. They save nobody, the mob remains untouched, and they might very well be looking at time in prison. At best they'll probably lose their private investigator licenses.

This movie would never get made today. At least not as a mainstream movie. There is no satisfying conclusion. The villains continue to prosper with only a few low level "torpedoes" and a middle level manager dead. The female ,who at first one thinks might need to be helped by our intrepid P.I.'s, soon turns out to be as bad as everyone else.Jaded and cynical, but I liked this story. It was smartly written and had a bite to it that one doesn't find anymore.