Thanks to the ongoing marvel that is Netflix Streaming, many previously hard to find and slept-on films are finding their way to our televisions, in fairly stunning quality. Recently I stumbled upon a movie I’d been seeking out for years and had basically given up on, Robert Culp’s 1972 detective film Hickey & Boggs.
Hickey & Boggs was one of a spate of revisionist private-eye movies that proliferated in the late 60s and early 70s, along with better known examples like The Long Goodbye (Robert Altman, 1973), Night Moves (Arthur Penn, 1975) and Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974). For years I only knew of it because it was always referenced in books about 1970s cinema, genre revisionism or neo noir – I’d never seen it on TV or in a video store. To me, Hickey & Boggs only existed as still photographs of director-star Culp and his co-star, Bill Cosby, holding .44 Magnums, so I was more than happy to find it available for instant streaming.
Despite the presence of Culp and his I Spy co-star Cosby, the film, written by then-rising star Walter Hill, is a downbeat affair. Al Hickey (the Cos) and Frank Boggs (Culp) are partners in a two man Los Angeles private eye firm, ex-cops and divorced losers. Boggs is an alcoholic whose stripper ex-wife likes to taunt him from the stage (“Eat your heart out.”) and Hickey is desperate to repair his family and be a father and husband again, but his ex (Rosalind Cash) is having none of it. Hickey and Boggs are broke, financially and spiritually.
The two are hired by a creepy, possibly pedophile lawyer named Rice to find a missing girl, which brings them deep into a web of gangsters, thugs, black militants and stolen mob money. The closer they get to cracking the case, the deeper the hole they dig themselves. The bad guys want them dead and the cops want them out of the way or in jail. What’s worse is that they can’t even figure out why they’re putting themselves through all of this. “It’s not about anything,” Hickey repeatedly complains. And while they carry the same enormous, deadly pistol as Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan, they don’t share his deadly accuracy. “I gotta get a bigger gun,” Boggs complains, “I can’t hit anything anymore.”
Hickey & Boggs was the only film Culp directed, and it’s a pity he didn’t go behind the camera again. The film is well-paced, well-acted and Culp has a good sense of the city and the contrast between the dark places the characters go and the bright, sun-bleached, wide open expanses the action often plays itself out in (the L.A. Coliseum, the beach, a collapsing hillside mansion). Hill’s script was supposedly written for Jason Robards and Strother Martin, which makes one wonder if the original intent was to get Culp’s good friend Sam Peckinpah to direct. No matter, Culp makes the most of the material and gives a very generous performance, allowing for really nice work from the rest of the cast (including a very young James Woods and Michael Moriarty) to shine.
The biggest impression is made by Cosby. Cosby gets a couple sardonic one-liners in, but this is a straight dramatic role, with his character going to some pretty dark places emotionally, and he’s excellent. He’s always believable and always seems to be giving each scene the proper energy. Sadly, the film didn’t do well, and Cosby spent the bulk of the remainder of the 1970s in silly (albeit fun) comedies with Sidney Poitier. What a shame that he wasn’t given more of a chance to shine as a dramatic actor during those peak years. Hickey & Boggs provides a tantalizing “What if?”
For fans of Cosby, Culp or neo-noir, Hickey & Boggs is a must-see.