Created by Walter Hill
At the time, circa 1998, my original entry on this much loved but definitely bleak cult film had a lot of fun suggesting it was rarely shown because it might contradict Bill Cosby’s squeaky clean image as America’s favourite TV dad.
That was such a long time ago…
Actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby reunited after their very successful run on television’s I Spy (ask your parents) to star as ALBERT “AL” HICKEY and FRANK BOGGS, two weary, beaten down partners in a failing Los Angeles detective agency, 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.
There are none of I Spy‘s shit-eating grins, and goofy, banter-laden male camaraderie on display here — Al (Cosby) and Frank (Culp) have seen far 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 is estranged from his wife and child; Boggs is an alcoholic who has just gone through a painful divorce from a young exotic dancer. This hard-boiled Odd Couple think 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 the two detectives quickly find themselves in way over their heads, and it soon becomes apparent that they can barely control of their own lives, much less 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 boldly underlined by Frank’s frequent complaints about needing a bigger gun and that he “can’t hit nothing,” and a particularly painful scene with his ex in a nightclub). As the two hapless pawns become more and more frustrated (the phrase “We gotta find that bitch” serves as a sort of mantra for the two gumshoes), they encounter extremely well-armed gangsters, black militants and Chicano radicals, all squaring off to control $400,000 from a Pittsburgh bank heist. As 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 but vacant public places: neighbourhood parks, football stadiums, baseball parks, the beach and 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 film; a powerful and mean-spirited slice of Boys’ Club neo-noir; bloody and violent; a withering, nihilistic miasma of male impotency and inadequacy– culturally, politically and, yes, sexually. Andrew Nette, in 2022, called it “possibly the most misanthropic private investigator film ever made,” and he may be right.
Some even proclaimed it the end of the road for the private eye genre.
They were wrong, but there is a a sense of despair that lingers over the film’s conclusion. It’s a nasty film, troubling and at times brutal
* * * * *
Hickey & Boggs was extremely hard to find for several years. It rarely aired on television, and was only briefly released on VHS.
DVD? Some fly-by-night Canadian company (I know, because I rented it once from Netflix back when they only rented DVDS… by mail!) made it briefly available, 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 once 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 little known and unsuccessful 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, burn-on-demand version.
Now that Culp is gone, and Cosby has no reputation left to ruin, the film might be a little easier to find. I see Amazon even has it available for streaming. But blotchy VHS tape, dubious DVD and through streaming, the film itself is great, definitely worth watching.
You can always take a blue pill later… and a long, hot shower.
- “There’s nothing left of this profession, Frank, it’s all over.”
- “We gotta find that bitch.”
- Al: “It’s not about anything”
Frank: “Yeah, it’s about 400 grand.”
- Al (as the smoke clears): Nobody came… nobody cares. It’s still not about anything.”
Frank: “Yeah, you told me.”
- “Watched this last night and then read your review again. First, you were right about the transfer – the picture quality is probably the worst I’ve ever seen. I’m sure I was watching the same DVD you were. In fact, it may have been the same disc. Afterc all, how many of those can NetFlix have?
The movie itself, though, was pretty good, although a little confusing at the start. One thing I noticed was that it had a definite “70s movie” feel. Lost of long shots, crowd shots, etc. Almost semi-documentary in places. Reminded me quite a bit of The French Connection and other crime films of the era, even The Conversation. Directors back then seemed to just set up the camera and watch the actors do their stuff.
I spotted Michael Moriarty and James Woods in the supporting cast, but somehow missed long-time character actor Ed Lauter. My excuse – he had hair in this one!
Anyway, I saw this on your recommendation and very much enjoyed it. Just wanted to say that.
— Graham Powell
- HICKEY AND BOGGS | Buy this video | Buy the DVD | Watch it now!
(1972, United Artists)
Tagline: They’re not cool slick heroes. They’re worn, tough men and that’s why they’re so dangerous.
Screenplay by Walter Hill
Directed by Robert Culp
Produced by Joel Reisner
Associate Producer: Fouad Said
Starring Robert Culp as FRANK BOGGS
and Bill Cosby as AL HICKEY
Also starring Rosaland Cash, Sheila Sullivan, Isobel Sanford, Ta-Ronce Allen, Lou Frizzell, Lou Frizzell, Nancy Howard, Bernard Nedell, Jason Culp, Ron Henriquez, Ed Lauter, Caryn Sanchez, Michael Moriarty, Bill Hickman, Vincent Gardenia, James Woods
- Hickey and Boggs (1972, by Philip Rock) | Buy this book
- Beautiful Losers
My 2010 Mystery Scene (Summer 2010 issue) column on Hickey and Boggs, written shortly after Robert Culp passed away.
- Glorious Trash: Hickey & Boggs
Joe Kenney’s glorious defense of the novelization of the film by Philip Rock. (June 2019, Glorious Trash)
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith. The awesome posters that kick off this page are from the special January 2011 screening as part of the Not Coming to a Theater Near You series at the 92YTribeca Film Festival in January 2011 that was hosted by our pal Duane Swierczynski.