There are films that instantly garner acclaim and are lauded for being big groundbreaking movie experiences. Sometimes it was even true. And the ‘70s had plenty of them — in fact, it was in that decade where the summer blockbuster was literally invented. The Exorcist, Jaws, and Star Wars burst upon the scene during that era, and we’ve felt the effects ever since. Yet, this same period also spawned some small, tough, and underestimated films that were gems in their own right, just nowhere near as successful. Many would become essential viewing, down the line. They’d end up as influential offerings on some VHS rental shelves — that is, when movie junkies gave them a chance. It could be said, some were pioneering motion pictures (in their own downcast and urban way).
“I gotta get a bigger gun. I can’t hit nothin’.”
Still, many of these disappeared quickly from the box office tabs, but some arose over time. A good bit of the crime films during this period fit the latter category to a tee. When initially released, these gritty post noir crime stories never attained anything close to success and were quickly forgotten to the video store dustbin. They weren’t meant for a wide audience, anyways. Their loss. In my mind, 1972’s Hickey & Boggs epitomized this. This low-budget neo noir is likely the most overlooked film on that list — and certainly one that’s been hardest to find.
“A few years ago I became a huge fan of Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, thanks to Terrill Lankford and Michael Connelly. Huge to the point of rewatching it two, three times a year, because I see something new each time. And just a few weeks ago, I was turned on to Night Moves, the Gene Hackman/Arthur Penn P.I. classic, thanks to both Ed Pettit and Lee Goldberg. Now I’ve found the private eye movie that completes the trilogy (in my own head, anyway): Hickey & Boggs, starring (and directed by) Robert Culp, and written by the legendary Walter Hill.
All three films are essentially about the same thing: the death of the private eye as we know it…”
The essence of the film is just that. This wasn’t Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade pounding the streets for clues or uncovering corruption in the noble, traditional sense à la Raymond Chandler or Dasheill Hammett. No, the protagonists in this tale are downtrodden like most everyone else was in the ’70s… and living in (perfectly coined by Duane) a “mean, sunbaked” Los Angeles of the time that had little pity for their ilk. Still, some took note.
Elizabeth Ward’s chapter in the Film Noir Reader, titled The Post-Noir P.I., provided an excellent study of this dynamic in her comparative look at The Long Goodbye and Hickey & Boggs. The writer deftly analyzed the indifference of the ’70s upon those “…few with a code”, and their newly out-of-place status. And, it took a heady combination of screenwriter, actor-director, and cast more than adequate for the job to take on that unidealized task at hand.
Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Robert Culp), I Spy co-stars reuniting and going against type in this downbeat crime thriller, are a pair of impoverished private eyes approached by a coiffed and shady character to find a particular woman who has gone missing. Needless to say, these private dicks step into a case way-over-their-heads. One which involves a suitcase full of $1000 bills, syndicate ties, double-crosses, and desperate characters just hoping to make it out alive — our heroes included.
Few do. Luckily, Hickey & Boggs had the support of a grand troupe that also contributed much to the hard-nosed movie fare of the era. There was a good deal of story and talent many dismissed when the film came and went back in 1972. Besides Hill, Culp, and Cosby, you had Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish), Tom Signorelli (1981’s Thief), James Woods (I don’t have put it on a list, do I?), Bill Hickman (Bullitt, Seven Ups, French Connection), Rosalind Cash (Klute, Omega Man) and Michael Moriarty (Who’ll Stop the Rain) dotting the cast and chewing the scenery. Hell, even Ed Lauter (The Longest Yard) showed up in uniform.
Hickey: “It’s time to get out.”
Boggs: “Outta what?”
Hickey: “There’s nothin’ left of this profession, Frank. It’s all over. It’s not about anything.”
Perhaps, it was the manner Hickey & Boggs depicted its gritty content, or the conflict it had on display via its scant budget, which drives my love of the film. Maybe it was the greed and mayhem Walter Hill penned so ably, and for which Robert Culp (in the rare director role, one he was so underrated at) assuredly laid out across the cityscape. A place that once existed and has gone by the wayside, which made it simultaneously so harsh and wistful. Much like the detectives of yesteryear and those long gone Santa Monica homes that once peppered the bluffs over PCH.
I guess it’s those film segments, which have either gone over the edge or have been decidedly bulldozed over, that made it so. By us local diehards, anyway. And like the Robert Towne penned Chinatown, released a couple of years later, this one presents the City of Angels as a distinct character of the piece. Even if she was a bit threadbare and calloused toward those who loved her for a time back then.
For me, Hickey & Boggs remains so damn watchable. After almost 40 years since I first caught the film in a near empty theatre, I’m still finding things in it I admire. Especially of late, its cinematography. Credit has to go to Bill Butler for making all that daylight and color in the film look so scorched and yet somehow catch its noirishly dark undercurrent. This the same guy who would be the DP a couple of years later for some kid director named Spielberg doing some shark movie. Under his lens, L.A. never looked so bad, and so beautiful for those lucky enough to see her back then.
Just like those old Civil Defense sirens that echo throughout the film. Like Michael Mann with his Los Angeles masterwork, Heat, got to give Robert Culp, in the only motion picture he ever chaired, praise for shooting so lovingly all across the city he called home. Along many of its famed locations — by the way, that is the real Pink’s, and one of its hot dogs in the image below. Yes, it was done fairly cheaply, but then again this wasn’t “The Nineties.” What better way to note the ’70s, I asked you. Yet, consider all the movies mentioned here, especially this neglected neo noir.
More than few of them used Los Angeles not only as a backdrop, but as the unspoken character with something to say…and with a little meanness.
“Look, everybody in this town is about to burn us up. You can’t go bad on me now. Frank, don’t you get it? Our pictures are in all the newspapers. They are going to bury us! One side or the other.”
Makes them essential viewing in my book. Hickey & Boggs is a forgotten film that’s finally gaining a long overdue reappraisal. I believe part of the reason a proper DVD release had been held up was the legal entanglement over rights. Sadly, with the passing of Robert Culp a few years back, it means the long dispute has cost us a key resource to the film’s backstory. Once, there was only a woeful disc and an ancient VHS tape floating about for media collectors. I know, I have both. Unlike the film, all was not beyond hope, however. Amazon began offering a pristine widescreen print of H & B on their Video on Demand service for rent or purchase, as does a certain fruit labeled company:
The streaming/digital video route turned out to be the recommended way to go, unless you were lucky enough to catch it in a revival screening. But, this crime gem is so worth it. While it’s not a feature-filled disc, thankfully the MGM MOD released Hickey & Boggs in widescreen MOD DVD finally brought the film a good rendering. My friend J.D. in his fine review of the film and DVD backs that up. The Kino Video Blu-ray Disc doubly so. I say, “Yay!” If there is any justice in the world, even if it’s of the sorrowful variety that remains Hickey & Boggs‘ finale, surely as Duane and I hope, only a Criterion Collection disc treatment will someday give this remarkable little film its late due.