A train arrives and a woman in sunglasses gets off and quickly walks away. She passes through LA’s Union Station, still looking largely as it did since it opened in 1939. We dissolve to a street scene – it is raining and, with the distinctive 1928 City Hall in the background, she makes a cryptic phone call from a public call box, then hails a cab. Inside she pats down her sturdy old-fashioned canvas suitcase with its brass fastenings and wooden struts. In Spanish she prays to god for deliverance. As the taxi drives away we watch rainwater accumulate into the storm drain. This is the spare and elliptical pre-credit sequence from Hickey and Boggs, the greatly underrated 1972 private eye movie co-starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby.
The following review (updated from a previous post) is offered as part of the Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and you should head over there to see the many other fascinating titles that have been selected.
“Spare me the drama.” - Al Hickey (Bill Cosby)
Although shot in colour and set in the (then) contemporary 1970s, the atmosphere and motifs being evoked here are unmistakably those belonging to the 1940s and the Film Noir genre in paticular. Cosby is Al Hickey and Culp is Frank Boggs, two-ex-cops eking out a desultory living as private investigators on $200 a day plus expenses. Hickey has been kicked out by his wife, whom he still loves, and Boggs has turned to alcohol and prostitutes as he obsesses over his ex-wife’s infidelities. One of his encounters is shot in a deliberate and very studied fashion with complex camera set-ups so that the prostitute is never actually seen except in shadow or through small physical details, which has led to speculation that Boggs may be homosexual, perhaps because Hickey’s wife sarcastically suggests just such a thing during an argument with her husband. Apparently this was not what the film was trying to suggest, rather just the mechanical and anonymous ritualistic nature of Boggs’ encounter. But it certainly adds an extra layer of fascination to the story, none the less.
The eponymous duo are hired to track down one Mary Jane Bower but soon find that the contacts they have been provided with (from a rather effeminate and sinister Lester Fletcher) are being systematically murdered (shades of Orson Welles’ maudit classic, Mister Arkadin) and soon the killing comes much closer to home. They have to contend with the police who are furious at their meddling, mobsters and revolutionaries, all to the baleful and alarming sound of the smog sirens. Culp, who here is also the director, and Cosby had of course been paired in the classic 60s TV series I Spy (1965-68) where they played supercool spies with a quip for any situation. The tone here is much more sombre, though the depth of their friendship always comes through even as the story becomes darker and bleaker, in keeping with the antecedents of the Film Noir genre, especially as it developed as Neo-Noir in the 1970s.
It’s the 1970s, stupid …
In the early 1970s the classic private eye genre had a brief but impressive resurgence in popularity in two distinctive but equally compelling modes, both on-screen and in literature, nostalgically looking to recreate the past or trying to expand its horizons for a new era. Many fine novels were produced which sought to expand on the tradition of the PI novel as established by Hammett, Chandler and Ross Macdonald. But this era also saw the beginning of the nostalgia boom which shepherded the release of the fine Robert Mitchum version of Farewell, My Lovely (1975) while on TV there were such short-lived period private eye shows as Banyon (1972-73) and City of Angels (1976). On the whole though there was clearly a greater taste for such contemporary and ultimately long-lived shows as The Rockford Files (1974-80), Cannon (1971-76), Barnaby Jones (1973-80) while Mannix came to the end of its 8-year run in 1975.
Given the social malaise of that era, the more distinctive movies tended to be more revisionist and ideologically driven, such as the despairing and downbeat depictions of criminality inherent in such films as Robert Altman and Leigh Bracket’s brilliant dissection of the chivalric myth of Philip Marlowe in The Long Goodbye(1973), the Oscar-winning classic Chinatown (1974) and the magnificently hard-to-follow Night Moves (1975), all of which I included in my Top 20 Private Eye Movies list – together with Hickey & Boggs.
“It’s not about anything”
“Yeah, it’s about four hundred grand.”
This should come as no surprise in that this film is based on an original screenplay by Walter Hill, a student and lover of Noir and a truly hardboiled writer and director. This film was one of the first credits for Hill, who wrote several Noir inflected screenplays at around that time including adaptations of Jim Thompson (The Getaway, 1972 and 1994) and Ross Macdonald (The Drowning Pool, 1975; Blue City, 1986), as well directing many examples of the genre like Johnny Handsome (1989, from John Godey’s novel) and Last Man Standing (1996, an uncredited adaptation of Hammett’s Red Harvest). This comes through even more strongly in the original scripts he wrote for those films he directed himself, such as The Streetfighter/ Hard Times (1975) and The Driver (1978). Culp was himself an accomplished writer and ended up revising the script when Hill became unavailable, working with Culp’s old friend Sam Peckinpah on The Getaway. The main plot, revolving as it does around the search by three separate groups for $400,000 dollars in large bills stolen from a bank in Pittsburgh, is one that could easily have been used by Elmore Leonard, though here there is none of the black humour one would associate with that author.
Culp had previously directed (and written) for television but this was his feature debut and it is remarkably assured and controlled, making great use of LA locations like the Coliseum Stadium as well as a perilously incomplete house up in the hills used by a Black Power militia. His handling of the actors is also first-rate, whether its brief cameos from the likes of James Woods and Michael Moriarty to more substantial roles like Rosalind Cash as Hickey’s estranged wife.
“Al… You ever kill anybody? In the United States? Because I know you mean it and everything, but I know these guys better than I know you. They’re soldiers, that’s all. No questions, no time to ask, no talk. Cops are worse, and less predictable. When you pull a gun, you’ve gotta be ready to kill somebody, and I’m telling you it’s better to run.”
Like so many films of that era, this is a film that deals with people at the end of their tether, so that while we get shootouts, car explosions and helicopter chases, the action, while executed perfectly, is never as memorable as the minimalist exchanges between the eponymous duo or the cruel, dispempowering scenes between the men and their wives – none more so that the brilliantly cruel sequence in which Boggs tortures himself by watching his ex-wife reject him for the umpteenth time while doing a striptease at a seedy bar – pure masochism, brilliantly if excruciatingly captured on film. It is not fun, it is not pretty (though beautifully, if unfussily, shot by Bill Butler) and it is often very hard to follow, but this is an exquisite film capturing a mood of disconsolate despair with a grandeur and precision that is a marvel to behold. This is a true cult classic that did no business at all when it came out but which should be gratefully reclaimed, especially at it is now available (finally, and for the first time, legally) in an impeccable edition on home video.
DVD Availability: The film is now available as part of the MGM Limited Edition series of Manufactured on Demand releases and has been given a fine anamorphic transfer with sharp images virtually without any nicks or scratches; the audio is offered with any noticeable distortion. For a low-budget movie (the cost was around $1.1 million) which never got the recognition it deserved at the box office, this is probably as good a home video release as could be expected. It can be ordered from Amazon etc and also directly from Screen Archives here.