Hickey and Boggs (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

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.

***** (5 fedora tips out of 5)

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51 Responses to Hickey and Boggs (1972) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. Sergio – I’m not as up on film as I am on some other things and this is one that got by me. I’m going to have to go back and look it up, as it really sounds like a well-done film – an excellent example of noir.

    • Thanks for the kind words Margot. It is one of those films that you would have thought would be better known given the presence of Bill Cosby but then again, this is a very downbeat 70s movie with none of his trademark humour. In a way it was a deliberate attempt to move away from that image and I think he gives a really great performance. It does seem to be a movie beloved mainly by neo-noir aficionados (like myself). It compares very favourable with Altman’s The Long Goodbye starring Elliot Gould as Philip Marlowe and Night Moves with Gene Hackman. If you liked those, you’ll love this one. On the other hand, if you didn’t like those, well …

  2. vinnieh says:

    Great review, hadn’t heard of the film before reading this but now I’m really interested in giving it a watch.

  3. Patti Abbott says:

    I don’t think I saw this. In, 1972 I had a one and two year old and have never caught up with the movies I missed.

  4. Yvette says:

    I’ve never seen this one, Sergio. Admittedly, I am not Film Noir’s biggest fan, but I do like Robert Culp and Bill Cosby together. This will have to wait though until I’m in a certain, grim frame of mind. Otherwise I’d probably just get impatient. I do so wish that Robert Culp had had a bigger movie career. He was just so damn good at anything he did.

    Even when he was elderly and working on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND as Raymond’s wife’s father, he was wonderful. So easy on camera.

    • Hi Yvette, you definitely need to be in the right frame of mind (right after a couple of high adrenaline Lee Child books perhaps?). Culp was really great, and a really talented writer and director too. I’m doing a post on I, Spy shortly but it is going to be hard not to make it just a fanboy celebration – what the hell, I may just leave it at that – there’s room for adoration on the blogosphere!

      By the way, I posted a different version of this review about a year ago and you very kindly commented on that one too, so if it all seemed a bit familiar, it’s definitely me and not you! Thansk again.

      Sergio

  5. Sergio, it’s beginning to seem more like Friday’s Unheard (of) Films for me, and that goes for your excellent choice and review as well. I was wondering why Robert Culp looked familiar till Yvette mentioned his role in EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND. This is probably one of the early movies about a Black and a White detective (or cop) that Hollywood has successfully patented over the years. What I like about these films is the realistic manner in which the sleuths and cops are shown. The poster with the blurbs says it all. I don’t remember ever seeing Bill Cosby in a similar role, though. Yes, I’d certainly like to watch HICKEY AND BOGGS. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Actually, that’s a really interesting point. Cosby and Culp had a huge, important and groundbreaking success in I, Spy on TV but in the cinema there had been very few similar pairings. Having said that, as in the TV show, the race issue is (rightly) irrelevant in the relationship between the two men. It’s other ignorant schmucks who sometimes have the problem. Brilliant, dark movie – seek it out, it’s really worth it.

  6. This sounds interesting, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of it so i’ll stick it on the ever expanding list of movies I need to see sometime. The only thing putting me off watching it would be Bill Cosby!

    • Cos is great in this film, giving a really great dramatic performance – there’s no trace of his trademark comedy persona here. Just watch this scene for instance:

      • I think you’ve sold me. He has quite the troubled cop persona going on in that clip.

        • Brilliant – a new convert! Just wait till i blog on I, Spy in a couple of weeks!

          • haha, I’m assuming you don’t mean that terrible looking Eddie Murphy movie, cos I really won’t be watching that!

          • The Eddy Murphy / Owen Wilson masterpiece of rubbishness? Nah, definitely the classic 1965-68 TV series, a classic bit of buddy / espionage from the Bond era.

          • I have to confess as being a little ignorant to Bill Cosby’s work beyond the obvious. Perhaps it’s because he was never a huge star over in here in the UK.

          • Cosby is much more of a national figure in the US, no doubt about it, though I remember enjoying The Cosby Show on Channel 4 for what seemed like years, and years and years. I, Spy was for its time a truly mould-breaking show, and not just for putting an African American above the titles (aamazingly the first for a dramatic show in the US even by 1965).

  7. John says:

    5 out of 5. Wow. I always thought this was an I SPY rip off due to the casting of the leads and I’ve always avoided it. Obviously, I was very wrong. Adding this to a list of movies to watch very soon. (For a variety of reasons my post on PUSHOVER did not make it up today. Trying again next week.)

  8. Jeff Flugel says:

    Man, I’m excited this has at long last come out on legit DVD – thanks so much for the heads-up on this one, Sergio! As a huge I SPY fan and admirer of both lead actors, particularly the sadly almost forgotten Culp (I maintain a forlorn hope that one day we might see his western series TRACKDOWN on DVD), I’ve long wanted to see this film.

    I’m glad you identified the two strands of detective film in the 70s…there was indeed an odd nostalgia boom then…one I’m very glad for, as it resulted not only in a lot of very good films both period and contemporary riffs on classic formulas (which you mentioned in your post), but also all those great books, like Bantam’s reprints of the Doc Savage novels by Lester Dent (and others), Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, among other less well-known pulp writers. It was partly due to this boom and the proliferation of these works in secondhand book shops during my youth that I became such a fan of this kind of fiction.

    Excellent review as always, Sergio!

    • Thanks very much for the kind words Jeff, much appreciated. In some ways the precursor of the nostalgia boom can be seen in the success of Play it Again, Sam, the Woody Allen play and film, which really seemed to launch or anyway capture that fascination with Bogart at a time when there was real unease and cynicism all around, wrapping up romanticism, anti-establishment and disenchantment all in one unlikely package. And yes, all those wonderful paperback reprints! Never got into Doc Savage though I’m afraid (I blame the rubbish George Pal movie for putting me off).

      • Jeff Flugel says:

        Ugh…the less said about the George Pal DOC SAVAGE movie the better. Shame that was your first exposure to the character. The books are (no surprise) far better. The early ones are great blood-and-thunder fantastic adventure pulps of the first order, and the later post-war ones are more leaner, tighter crime or “science detective” novels. Hopefully one day you may get around to checking the originals out.

        • I was always intrigued by the Philip Jose Farmer books that sought to tie up all these variosu pulp characters and strands but always felt I wouldn’t know enough to really enjoy them without going through all the roiginal works first, though I am really curious. Thanks for all the info – I’ll have to see what ‘Kenneth Robeson’ / Lester Dent books are out there.

  9. vinnieh says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for the comments on my blog they mean a lot.

  10. Mike Doran says:

    Why HICKEY AND BOGGS is overlooked can be explained very simply, if you remember the period in which it was made.

    From the time that television started to gain ground on movies as the main American source of entertainment, there was an invisible wall between the two media, maintained defiantly by both movie producers and ‘film critics’. The working notion was that TV was ipso facto inferior to the silver screen, therefore so were those who worked in it. Those who dared to try and breach the invisible wall had to prove more than someone who came from, say, Broadway; the TV upstart had to hit one grand slam after another to prove his mettle on the Big Screen.
    For every Steve McQueen or James Garner who managed to do that, there were so many others who came up short at the box office, thereby ‘proving’ that the public “wouldn’t pay to see what they could get at home for nothing”.
    This kind of thinking at the movie end remained in force well into the ’70s, when H&B came out; to a lesser extent it still exists within the ‘critical community’. Many respected ‘film scholars’ still maintain that TV is inherently inferior to theatrical film, because … well, just BECAUSE, so there.
    That HICKEY AND BOGGS was made for theatrical release cuts no ice with this mentality; TV people means TV show, which equals low quality, period.
    What my cousin Judy would call “Booshwah!”
    But that’s how movies get overlooked, no matter how good they actually are.
    End of rant.

    • Thanks for the rant Mike, greatly appreciated. I dare say you are right and the perception that Culp and Cosby were TV actors best known for a particular TV show can;t have helped much – not to mention the fact that it is just not a very commercial movie. What is maddening is that Culp was clearly a terrific writer and director as well as actor and it would have been great if he could have had more opportunities, though he admitted that he was not always the easiest persona to work with given how single-minded he could be. Truly our loss.

  11. TracyK says:

    You keep doing this. Featuring films I want to see and we already have a huge backlog. This is a great overview. The comparison to The Long Goodbye is definitely a plus, as my husband and I both consider that a favorite film. Night Moves we did not go for so much.

    • Very glad to be able to be of service and feed the Neo-Noir habit! I love the sheer impenetrability of Night Moves and Gene Hackman has probably never given bad performance in his life (though Superman IV was pretty bad …) but I totally understand that it might not be everyone’s particular cop of java. But if you liked the Altman (and bravo, thou art clearly a couple of taste) then I really think Hickey and Boggs is for you.

      • TracyK says:

        I agree about Gene Hackman, although others in my family did not like him in Marooned. As far as I am concerned, he can do no wrong.

        • Gosh, Marooned? OK, it’s been way too long since I saw that one. But my firm belief is that he may have a ppeared in alot of lacklustre films, but was never less that great in any of them. I’m sure I can prove this mathmatically given the time and resources (and an endless supply of monekys with calculators) … Believeve it or not, Marooned was a project htat was originally going to be made by Frank Capra – imagine what that might have been like …

  12. George says:

    Great movie!! Terribly sad and depressing though. I wish that a little Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott would have shown through the characters of Hickey and Boggs just to lighten the mood a bit. Culp and Cosby brilliantly orchestrated their characterizations as negative composites to their I Spy counterparts. Had to watch an episode of I Spy after I saw this movie, just to cheer me up!!

    • Cheers George – I really know what you mean, it is such an anguished film. It’s such a shame that the film didn’t do better financially – would have loved to see them make more together in all kinds of style – w pure comedy would have been great for instance. Still mustn’t be too greedy …

      • George says:

        Cavershamragu: Agreed. On I Spy, these two guys could have you laughing one minute over silly, even juvenile, situations and then get you thoroughly absorbed in serious drama. It was a terrific, if not brilliantly written and acted, balance. I always wondered myself as to why they did not pair up more often. Maybe it was intentional. You know, that old show biz cliche of “keep em wanting more.”

        • According to the book, the decision to end the show rested entirely due to a dispute between Sheldon Lonard and the network and a commitment they had made to screen another one of his shows. When he said they would do either one or the other, he called their bluff, ended I Spy and then had the new show flop – maddening really! The reunion movie was fun just because it was Cos and Culp and not for much else. Rather sweet episode of the Cosby show in Culp guest starred as one ‘Scott Kelly’ … There is also an episode of the later Cosby show in which Culp appears in a dream sequence playing his old character.
          The Cosby Show

  13. V. Black says:

    Excellent review. Your analysis does a great job of intertwining plot and film making. I didn’t understand parts of the movie until I read this. Also, I wholeheartedly agree that this is an underrated film.
    Vicki Black
    Rock Island, TX

  14. Rob J says:

    It is good to know that this magnifIcent film is finally available to buy on DVD. The only problem is
    where do I find it ?

  15. Jcordell says:

    After having heard about this movie for so many eyars I decided to take a chance and bought it from Amazon when it became available on DVD. Glad I took the chance. Excellent movie. Very early seventies. Very downbeat.

    • Glad it was a good investment – it is very much of its time but to my mind all the better for it. And a very good DVD too in terms of the tranfer, which helps after decades of really lousy ‘unofficial’ videos.

      • Jcordell says:

        Yes the quality of the transfer was impressive. I’m 45 now and over the past few years I’ve added several classics and “obscure” movies to my DVD library. “Marathon Man, Hickey & Boggs, Bullitt, Rolling Thunder, The Seven Ups,The Wild Bunch, The Candidate, All the President’s Men The French Connection” and so on. When I was younger (i.e. more than 20 years ago)I found those movies to be slow and boring. But in the past few years something has changed and I appreciate them now. Go figure.

        • I’m with you all the way (and 45 this year, though not quite yet …) – the speed of equivalent fare today often feels like hype in the place of texture (though I think films like Tony Scott’s underrated (if absurdly macho) Domino and Man on Fire do manage to find something interesting to say in the hyperkinetic style too).

          • Jcordell says:

            Haven’t seen Domino, but I do like Man on Fire. I agree with you about that one. Speaking of Tony Scott has anyone figured out why he killed himself? Health was okay, no suicide note, financially he was okay (I guess). Go figure. He wasn’t as skilled as Ridley, but he made some very good popcorn movies.

          • Yes, very sad about Scott. He appears to have been taking anti-depressants at the time of his suicide (hardly unusual these days) but clearly, whatever the reason, a very sad event for the Scott family in particular. Apparently an incredibly nice guy – and some of his films will certainly endure.

  16. JMort says:

    I happened upon the blog, great insight… it is great to see reviews of these shows from non American eyes. Thanks for the blog!

  17. Pingback: The Drowning Pool (1975) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film | Tipping My Fedora

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