”Nobody came.” “Nobody cares.” –Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as Al Hickey & Frank Boggs (respectively), ironically predicting how the film would fare at the box office.
In the fall of 1972, audiences were thrilled to learn actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby — the stars of hit ’60s espionage series, I Spy — were teaming up once again to play a pair of detectives in the movie Hickey & Boggs. Unfortunately, all of the excitement about the movie died just as soon as the curtains in the auditorium went up or they read the reviews in the newspaper the next day since the movie — a deeply serious and dark tale of two down-on-their-luck detectives trapped in an ever-changing and challenging world — was hardly the lighthearted matinee fare the public was hoping to see.
You’d think that the film’s poster, which depicted Cosby and Culp — both bearing .44 Magnums — amidst a dynamic shootout from the film’s finale and bearing the tagline “They’re not cool slick heroes. They’re worn, tough men and that’s why they’re so dangerous,” followed up by “They hold their forty-four magnums with two hands and keep firing until they hit something…anything” would pretty much get the message across. But then, once a star has achieved “comic” status in the eyes of the general public, you can basically forget about them ever fathoming said celebrities as being “serious” ever again (I mean, this is the general public we’re talking about, you know!). Take, for example, Jim Carrey’s turn to drama in The Majestic, Bill Murray’s performance in The Razor’s Edge or Britney Spears. Even now, nearly forty years after Hickey & Boggs was made, it’s hard to take Bill Cosby in a genuinely sincere role. This is the man that showed up at the 2010 grand opening of Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen in Sparks, NV wearing pajamas, after all.
Hickey & Boggs follows what surely must have been the final case for the oddly named titular detectives. Al Hickey (Cosby) has been removed out of the family equation by his estranged wife (Rosalind Cash) and is desperate to be reunited with them. Frank Boggs (Culp), on the other hand, has long-since kissed his ex-wife goodbye, rinsed his mouth out with whiskey, and moved on to a slew of male prostitutes; he has a mountain of debt building and a failing private investigator business with his associate, Al.
And then comes a case with the promise of mucho dinero. Never mind that the man who has hired them is initially portrayed as a child molester (played by a flamboyant actor named Lester Fletcher, amusingly enough): this is that case that could very well bring their heads above water. But, as they proceed with their seemingly simple investigation to locate the whereabouts of a lethal Latina lady named Mary Jane (Carmencristina Moreno), they soon discover that this could very well be the case that sinks them once and for all: as it turns out Mary Jane knows the location of $400,000 (roughly $2.2 million today) that was pulled off in a daring heist some time before. There are a lot of people that want it, too: including posh gangster Mr. Brill (Soap’s Robert Mandan), a black militia group, and a trio of brutal thugs. If that weren’t bad enough, there are also a number of bodies piling up from all of the patrons of this party — something the police (led by Vincent Gardenia) are none too keen about.
Part of the negative critical/audience reaction to Hickey & Boggs was in response to the script, written by one Walter Hill — who would go on to write (and sometimes direct) such great cinematic tales as The Getaway, 48 Hrs., and The Warriors. Hickey & Boggs was Hill’s first (filmed) script, and there are a number of gaps and holes in the story that lead one to wonder if he hadn’t quite honed his ability to spin a yarn — or if the filmmakers behind this underappreciated neo-noir mystery chopped up the story and/or finished work immensely in order to not bore its audience to death with detail.
If they did, they really screwed it all up by cutting out far too much detail. Our main characters — particularly Cosby’s Al Hickey — get plenty of screen time and back story, while many of the remaining players are as puzzling as the onscreen case itself. Even the brilliant portrayal of Frank Boggs by Robert Culp (who also directed, and did one damn fine job of it, too) comes off as a little unresolved. We know he’s sleeping with men, yet he’s apparently pining for his stripper ex-wife. There’s just not enough detail in some parts of this film, while other elements don’t have nearly enough.
And then there’s a terrific ensemble of supporting characters, such as Isabel Sanford and Bill Hickman. There are even a trio of then-fresh faces bearing the names Michael Moriarty, Ed Lauter, and James Woods — all of whom had hair at this point in their careers. While most of the aforementioned performers are just reduced to minor, menial roles here, it’s nevertheless a joy to see them give it their all along with Bill Cosby and Robert Culp — who are positively stellar as Hickey & Boggs.
It’s such a pity that nobody else thought so.
Apparently, MGM is another party that didn’t think much of this underrated crime classic, having neglected to release it on DVD in the past and only pressing it on DVD-R as part of their “Limited Edition Collection” Manufactured-On-Demand lineup a year-and-a-half after star/director Robert Culp had passed away in 2010. The release itself isn’t unfortunate. In fact, it’s rather nice — sporting a 16×9 1.85:1 widescreen ratio with a somewhat lush color scheme and better-than-average contrast (it’s certainly better than that god-awful 2004 release by AIP Studios!). What bothers me is that there was a huge missed opportunity here for the late great Culp to reflect on this feature via an audio commentary or retrospective featurette. There isn’t even a trailer tacked-on with this release.
Oh, well. At least we can finally see this misjudged movie in a more-than-sufficient transfer.