Everything in Hickey & Boggs seems sick of the Los Angeles sun. The shitty little paper cups for bad coffee and booze ready to litter the streets; the junky, dented cars with their fading paint jobs; the lips dangling cigarettes with their carcinogens swirling around the already toxic air and creasing already lined faces with baked noxiousness; the beaches, lonely and dirty with, yes, the pacific ocean right there but an ocean that seems less for swimming and more for sweeping away garbage, loose change or even dead bodies; and then the men, two dispirited men specifically (but not unlike many men or women chugging through the day), walking slowly out of their grubby little office in rumpled suits, squinting, annoyed and overheated, ducking into dark bars and hunched on their barstools, escaping that oppressive Los Angeles smog-choked yellow light. It’s 1972 and everyone looks hung over. Broke. Down. I don’t want to know what their shirts smell like. The two guys who stumble out of that crappy little office don’t have long conversations about their lives. But they know each other like two best friends who have been through hell and back. Sometimes they don’t even need to look at each other when they speak and just stare off into space – without discomfort. They’re at least at ease with each other. You wonder if they ever liked the sun.
That’s the crummy world we’re immediately placed into by director Robert Culp (with a screenplay by Walter Hill), purposely and powerfully emphasizing an existential despair that clings to these characters like decades of smoke tarring an addict’s lungs. Los Angeles private investigators Al Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp) are partners who are suffering their fair share of mid life defeats, and we get to know about their hardship and heartbreak as they casually discuss their scarred lives (emotional scars, but they’ve likely got physical ones too). The two men lament life’s little indignities that add up to a lot: Boggs has a house he needs to sell, Hickey is struggling with which bill to pay first – the office phone or their messaging service? Clients can’t leave contact information if they don’t have the service and the partners can’t call their clients if they don’t have a phone. That’s quite an absurd, almost humorously unreasonable financial conundrum to mull over. And so, this is where spare change (used for the central meal of the day – hot dogs) and clunky 1970’s payphones come in handy. When Hickey drops in on his sleeping daughter (his wife is an ex wife, naturally), he fishes some coins out of his pocket and places them under her pillow. It’s a sweet detail and knowing how broke he is, this gesture rings extra poignant.
Both Hickey and Boggs have ex-wives who don’t want them around any more. Hickey is yelled at when he visits his lady (an outstanding Rosalind Cash), playfully (or aggressively?), flushing the toilet while she’s in the shower. Why would she like that? She doesn’t. Boggs can’t afford alimony so he does a favor to get his ex’s old job back stripping. In a sad, beautifully staged scene, he watches his very non-stripper named ex, Edith (Sheila Sullivan) dance for him, and he looks at her with a soused smile on his face that manages to be anything but happy. Boggs pulls him out of the place, sparing him any more humiliation. Edith calls out to him, mid gyration, her face twisted with a disturbed, desperate smile, hair flying all over the place: “Thanks, Frank!” And then she adds: “Kill yourself.”
That’s a terrible thing to say to poor, down-on-his-luck Boggs who might just do exactly that (he’s certainly not helping his longevity given how much he sucks down the liquor, and he really does suck it), but then we don’t know how he treated her in the past. Women are referred to as “bitches” here, but the movie intrinsically knows that, well, it’s not like these females don’t have a reason. The taunting stripper Edith, hoping Frank offs himself, is also calling out what this movie is doing to the picture’s genre – dying. Killing it. The heroic, romantic notion of the private investigator, any idealism, even the slightest bit peeking underneath that edge, is being blown to bits in Hickey & Boggs. The gruff, sexy cynicism and clever banter of Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe is instead, two busted-up guys deeply in debt, with a running gag of placing “Out of Order” paper bags on parking meters so they don’t have to rifle through their pockets for hotdog money. No gorgeous, leggy blonde walks into the office with a mysterious problem, and the missing woman of the film’s plot is practically beside the point – she’s not even romanticized enough to earn a certain kind of respect. The woman here seems more a catalyst to underscore the partner’s problems and the intricate, confusing plot propels them into an even more puzzling, indifferent universe. Hill’s script and Culp’s direction knows that, in 1972 America, a Bogart P.I. would feel cliché, and almost ridiculous – P.I.s are now essentially, as one character says, nothing but “process servers.”
And given that Cosby and Culp starred on the hip TV series, I Spy (which ended four years before this picture) they’re even killing off the international appeal and enviable cool of those characters. The stars claims they never wanted to be overtly political with I Spy, but the progressive hipness and importance of a black man starring on a network TV show, not as a sidekick but as a partner, was an significant step. And it feels important in Hickey & Boggs, even as down-the-drain their character’s lives are. Still, Cosby and Culp maintain their unique, natural rhythm with one other, exchanges that feel as if each one knows what the other is thinking. Their camaraderie and mutual respect has not been shattered, in spite of their messy, doleful lives. And they maintain traces of shaggy cool – two guys who used to be hip and still are (maybe if the bills could be paid). They’re walking out of the 1960’s and into the 1970’s older, wiser and sadder. Any of that 60’s optimism is now crushed, calcified into an acceptance of pessimism.
And, yet, these men aren’t so depressing that they lose cinematic intrigue – we’re fascinated watching them and we’re wondering what they’re thinking. And there’s a lot of thinking going on in these two brilliant, understated performances. Whatever swagger these guys had in the past has, yes, sagged with age and experience and as stated before, you still see some style in flashes. There’s Hickey’s green suit jacket and cigarillo or the way the way Boggs reaches for a bottle inside a filing cabinet, almost knowing that’s the most obvious fucking place for it, a cinematic cliché. He twists something rote into being rote for a reason. So, these guys still have some sex appeal and some smarts, even if they’re in over their heads, but… does anyone care? It would appear no. That question, if it at all matters, will hang over the picture until the bitter end. It’s a rhetorical question. As we watch Hickey and Boggs close the movie, mayhem burning up behind them, walking off along the ocean with the sun finally setting, we’ve just seen one of the bleakest private eye films of the 1970s. We’ve also seen (along with Robert Altman’s masterpiece, 1973’s The Long Goodbye) one of the best.
As I mentioned earlier, the plot here seems secondary to the quiet, sometimes wordless study of character and a shambling, sunny city around them, and yet the picture is often exciting and shocking. Set pieces and surprise deaths serve to deepen the picture’s protagonists more than move the story along, a story that obfuscates on purpose. The movie begins when the partners are given $500 to track down a missing woman by an effeminate, gold-chain-wearing Rice, a shady lawyer sunbathing on a depressing beach while kids frolic on a playground close by (he’s interested in the kids, to add extra creep factor). The woman they’re to find is his girlfriend, Mary Jane, and we have a hard time believing this really is his girlfriend. Hickey and Boggs’ constant refrain is: “We gotta find that bitch.” They try. And trying will prove to be extremely difficult as more and more people and plot superfluities pile into and onto the movie – gangsters who want the guys off the case and dead, cops who also want the guys off the case, black militants, a $400,000 bank heist and deadlier kinds of guns, only underscoring the impotence the detectives are already suffering. There’s a Smith & Wesson M76 submachine gun blasted into an empty stadium by Tom Signorelli’s Nick, M1 Carbine’s pulled out of a trunk by militants, and a M60 spraying bullets from a helicopter by Michael Moriarty’s Ballard. No wonder Hickey says, when looking at his Smith & Wesson Model 29 revolver: “I gotta get a bigger gun, can’t hit nothing.” That’s certainly a loaded statement.
This was Walter Hill’s first script (reworked by Culp) and Culp’s first directing job. Walter Hill went on to write and direct the excellent, brutal Hard Times starring Charles Bronson, followed by his many other now classics (The Driver, The Warriors, The Long Riders, Southern Comfort, 48 Hrs., Streets of Fire and more, including The Assignment, released this year). The great Walter Hill is still working. Culp is not. He’s gone – in 2010 he collapsed near the lower entrance to L.A.’s Runyon Canyon. Hickey & Boggs was, alas, Culp’s sole directorial credit, a shame given how much sensitivity and aptitude he shows by allowing scenes to play out, often wordlessly; trusting his actors and his locations, knowing that the shabbiness of a street or a sole Dixie cup on a desk often says more than words (his cinematographer here is Bill Butler, who shot The Conversation and Jaws after this). He also understood the darker depths of Bill Cosby (I’ll add that watching him now is a different experience and many viewers will find this difficult and disturbing, and I don’t blame them). Cosby would not return to this kind of moodiness again, not with this kind of gloomy weight, and it’s interesting to wonder why. It’s also curious to consider Culp casting good friend Bill Cosby (and they were close friends in real life) and never giving him a joke. That’s a bold move. Even if Cosby had proven his dramatic chops in I Spy. Added on to that, Hickey’s wife is murdered and Boggs tells him to forget the bitch (he’s truly, trying to help him, not insult his wife). That’s quite another bold move, even for the 1970s. But forgetting the bitch is not going to happen, and director Culp knows it. By picture’s end, Hickey collapses on the beach and you feel, not a sense of relief, but a kind of spinning grief that’s never going to be resolved.
And these guys know nothing is ever going to be resolved. But do they even care about that? Probably not. They’re now walking off into obscurity. Maybe they’ll pay off some debts, maybe they’ll spruce up the office (if they keep that office) maybe fewer parking meters will be bagged. But will they fix up their lives? Will exes return? Will colleagues respect them? Will their profession gain any importance or valor or sexiness or even clients?
Those questions won’t be answered definitely, but the picture is so persuasively nihilistic that, what the hell, I will confidentially answer: No. Raymond Chandler wrote in The Long Goodbye: “I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars” and Culp and Cosby personify this to slumped, overcast perfection.
The film’s final lines, spoken on that beach with the fading sun everyone and everything seems so sick of, play like a death knell – it’s over. They do have a continuing partnership, we think (and that’s better than being alone), but a partnership in pessimism:
Hickey: “Nobody came.”
Boggs: “Nobody cares.”
Hickey: “It’s still not about anything.”
Boggs: “Yeah, I know, you told me.”
Appropriately, and perhaps, graciously, the oppressive Los Angeles sun is setting.