Obscure Insert, for a change:
I'm finally getting around to writing about Robert Culp's one attempt at directing a feature film, Hickey & Boggs. The film is still not legally available on any home video format in this country, however I burned a DVD from an airing on MGM HD a few months back and the film looked great. Although I was disappointed in the film overall, the increased clarity and appropriate aspect ratio made it all go down a lot easier. Based on the evidence here, actor Culp is a fine visual director and it's a shame he didn't direct any further feature films (he did direct for television). It certainly must have helped to have the assistance of reliable d.p. Bill Butler (here credited as Wilmer Butler) who would soon go onto photograph Jaws, The Conversation, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I wanted to like this one a lot more than I did since I am a big fan of Walter Hill, but as has been the case with most of his other pre-directing assignments (The Drowning Pool, The MacKintosh Man, The Getaway), I haven't been nearly as keen on these as I have been on his directorial efforts (The Warriors, Hard Times, Streets of Fire, Johnny Handsome, The Long Riders, et al.). Interestingly, even though Hill broke through as a writer (he worked as 2nd Unit Director first, in the late '60s), his most enduring works (other than Hard Times) have been when he's functioned solely as director or in tandem with someone else on the script (David Giler, Larry Gross).
Hickey & Boggs are Los Angeles private investigators who have seen much better days. Clients are not banging down the doors of their no-frills office. They wear the same suits day after day. Their romantic relationships are a shambles; Hickey (Bill Cosby) tries to win over his estranged wife (Rosalind Cash) who has no more patience for him and remain active in his young daughter's life; the perpetually drunk or hung over Boggs (Culp) spends a good deal of time in a club being berated by his stripper ex-wife. Detectives (Vincent Gardenia, James Woods) would like to lock them up for repeatedly fouling up police investigations. Most importantly, the criminals they pursue are seemingly one or two steps ahead of Hickey and Boggs at all times. The criminals are organized and efficient, "soldiers," as Boggs says, while Hickey and Boggs repeatedly stumble into leads and fall into traps. Nothing symbolizes the disparity between the crooks and the detectives better than their respective arsenals: Hickey and Boggs fire .44 Magnums, the gun of Dirty Harry, yes, but no match for the machine guns and cannons that the mob enforcers shoot back with. Hickey and Boggs are truly men out of time.
For most of Hill's minimalist screenplay, Hickey and Boggs are relatively meaningless pawns in a power struggle between a mob syndicate, Chicano activists, and a Black power group over the rights to $400,000 stolen in a Pittsburgh bank robbery. Ultimately, the private investigators prevail, but with the sad knowledge that their efforts had little effect on the whole affair; Hickey and Boggs know time is passing them by and they are becoming irrelevant.
Stars Bill Cosby and Culp have an amazing rapport and onscreen chemistry going back to their salad days as the stars of television's I Spy. This familiarity with each other serves them well in Hickey & Boggs, but they're let down by Hill's deliberately opaque screenplay. On his first few screenplays, Hill tried to emulate the minimalist nature of Alexander Jacobs' masterful script for Point Blank. The latter is a brilliant template to be sure, but Hill's script comes off as overly regimented and deliberate. I appreciate Hill's attempts to make things challenging, but I had an incredibly difficult time following plot developments and character relationships and motives. I had a similar feeling when watching The MacKintosh Man, which Hill wrote a year later for John Huston and Paul Newman. That film, for all its murkiness, had some amazing individual set pieces.
I did not find nearly as much in Hickey & Boggs to keep me interested. True, it is a kick to see Cosby and Culp together again and using their unique collaborative abilities toward something a lot darker and more provocative than I Spy. And, I loved the use of evocative, often seedy L.A. locations (Hickey and Boggs' favorite watering hole; a hot dog joint where Hickey and Boggs' order four of the nastiest looking chili dogs; the cliffside home base of the Black revolutionaries) and the fact that the production also manages to capture both a Dodgers game and a Rams game. When all is said and done, however, the film does not play out as well on screen as it does on paper. Hill keeps the motives and backgrounds of the supporting players so close to the vest that their potentially interesting characteristics are left unexploited. The repeated ineptitude of Hickey and Boggs becomes exhausting.
I'm not sure why this one has never hit video in this country. There were not a lot of popular music tracks, or score for that matter, so I don't think music rights were/are an issue. Not surprisingly, the film was not a box office hit, so it is entirely possible that MGM simply does not see a sizable market for the film. However, the presence of Cosby, albeit in an uncharacteristically downbeat role, would seem to negate this argument. Perhaps a grief-stricken, revenge-seeking Cosby gunning down thugs is too disturbing a sight for those accustomed to the lovable Cliff Huxtable . Regardless of its absence on home video, Hickey & Boggs enjoys a solid critical reputation and has played successfully on several occasions at the American Cinematheque (Read about it at Mr. Peel's Sardine Liqueur). As for me, I'm glad to have finally seen the film, particularly in such a splendid presentation and hope that MGM follows up its HDTV presentation with a proper DVD and/or Blu-ray release.