Actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby reunited after their very successful run on television's I Spy (ask your parents) to star as AL HICKEY and FRANK BOGGS, two weary, beaten down Los Angeles P.I.s in the 1972 flick Hickey & Boggs, directed by Culp himself. The film is -- I kid you not -- one of the all-time great private eye noirs, from a decade that also gave us such classic gumshoe flicks as Chinatown, Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, Shaft, The Drowning Pool and The Late Show, among others.
Al and Frank have seen better days -- at one point they're debating whether to pay the phone bill or their answering service, and they're contemplating selling Frank's house. Not that their personal lives are in any great shape either, though -- Hickey (Cosby) is estranged from his wife and child; Boggs is an alcoholoc has just gone through a painful divorce from his ex-wife, a young exotic dancer. This hard-boiled Odd Couple thinks their financial woes will be solved when they're hired by a lawyer called Rice (a definitely creepy character who sunbathes while staring at young children in a playground) to track down his girlfriend, Mary Jane. But not only are the two detectives in way over their heads, they can barely control the film that bears their name. Like Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones, they're essentially spectators to the action, barely effectual, increasingly impotent (a point underlined by Frank's complaints about needing bigger guns and a particularly painful scene with his ex-wife in a nightclub) and growing more and more frustrated (the phrase "We gotta find that bitch" serves as a sort of mantra for the two gumshoes). As extremely well-armed gangsters, black militants and Chicano radicals square off in a battle to control $400,000 from a Pittsburgh bank heist and the bullets fly, the most Al and Frank can do is run for cover.
This is a sort of inverted noir, in terms of style. Whereas most classic noirs are played out in a world of increasingly tight, dark, claustrophobic places like bars, alleys and cheap motel rooms, the bitter weight of gloom and doom pressing down harder and harder, Hickey & Boggs by contrast is played out in a series of wide open, often sun-drenched public places: neighbourhood parks, football stadiums, baseball parks, the beach, parking lots.
Hickey and Boggs (despite the fact that the title makes them sound like one of Frank Gruber's comic detective pairs) is actually quite a bleak, violent, nasty film, a powerful slice of neo-noir.
It was also extremely hard to find for several years, was only briefly released on VHS and hasn't appeared on the tube (at least in these parts) in donkey's ages.
DVD? Well, it existed for a while from some fly-by-night Canadian company (I know, because I rented it once from Netflix), but I swear it was one of the god-awful crappiest digital transfers to DVD I've ever seen, a grainy blurry mess with only one special feature: a couple of cheapo text-only, typo-ridden rudimentary bios of the two stars -- and they're none-too complimentary either, particularly towards Cosby. Adding insult to injury, perhaps...
It made me wonder if the DVD would ever receive an official release... Could it be that Mr. Pudding Pops was so worried about dirtying his wholesomer-than-thou image that he'd refused to have it made available all these years? After all, this is one vicious piece of noir, with a few scenes that are just plain squirm-inducing. No new sweaters for Theo in this one, folks.
Or was it simply a matter of a fine, if little known. film falling through the cracks?
I dunno, but in the wake of Robert Culp's death in 2010, MGM finally released an "official" version on DVD, albeit in a bare bones, MOD version.
Quality of the DVD aside, though, the film itself is great, definitely worth watching.
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. The awesome posters that bookend the title of this page are from the special January 2011 screening as part of the Not Coming to a Theater Near You series at the 92YTribeca in January 2011 that was hosted by our pal Duane Swierczynski.
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