Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett

Al Hickey (Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp)

Al Hickey (Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp)

Directed by Robert Culp; produced by Fouad Said; written by Walter Hill; music by Ted Ashford; with Robert Culp, Bill Cosby, Ta-Ronce Allen, Rosalind Cash, Lou Frizzell, Michael Moriarty, Isabel Sanford, James Woods, Vincent Gardenia, Bill Hickman. DVD, Color, 107 min., 1972. An MGM Limited Edition Collection release.

The late actor Robert Culp was known primarily for his numerous television performances, from his superb Fifties TV Western, Trackdown, to his appearances on the popular comedy Everybody Loves Raymond. Culp was a central creative force behind the action show I Spy, starring himself and then-rising star Bill Cosby, making it the first program with integrated leads in TV history. Culp, an ingenious, eccentric actor, had occasional successes in theatrical films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), and the amoral, pseudofeminist Western Hannie Caulder (1971), but his creative contribution to film and television has yet to be recognized. Culp was a talented writer and director; it is fair to say that he is among the people who created early television drama. He wrote and directed episodes of the superb shows produced by Dick Powell’s groundbreaking Four Star Productions, including Trackdown, The Rifleman, and The Westerner. The latter two shows were created by his best friend, legendary director Sam Peckinpah. Culp wrote the two-part episode “Waste” for The Rifleman, perhaps one of the high points of TV drama in the early Sixties. He planned to direct the episode with an emphasis on uncompromising realism, but the show’s producers took the project from him. Still, what exists shows Culp as a formidable artist.

Hickey & Boggs is the only theatrical film Culp directed, but it is a film of value, long neglected to the point of being forgotten. It displays Culp’s flinty, grim sensibility—it is easy to see how he formed a bond (a troubled one) with Peckinpah. The film reunites Cosby and Culp in roles a far cry from the relatively lighthearted I Spy. Like many of the best latter-day noirs, it shows a profound cynicism (it was made before Watergate unfolded, but Vietnam was grinding on) and a vision of human civilization at the abyss.

Al Hickey (Cosby) and Frank Boggs (Culp) are down-on-their uppers private eyes in an especially filthy, overdeveloped, smog-laden Los Angeles (Culp has a keen eye for LA sleaziness and physical degradation). The premise is more than familiar, but Culp sees deeply into its logic. The two men have been through especially bitter divorces that have left them devastated—Boggs seems a tertiary alcoholic and a bit disabled. They hang out in bars and discuss whether they can afford to pay either the electric bill or the telephone service. They soon find themselves in over their heads in a case involving a long-ago mob-sponsored bank robbery, and a young woman who has bitten off more than she can chew in robbing the mob on behalf of her convict husband and a black radical group.

Like the best noirs, Hickey & Boggs is awash in a sense of pervasive corruption and moral depravity—even the multiple chili dogs that the two heroes eat seem toxic. But closely associated with the film’s sense of decay are the paranoid forms of bigotry that even many intelligent films can’t shake off, including homophobia. Hickey interviews a seminude hood (referred to by Hickey as “Sweet Lips”) who eyes young children as he sunbathes—gay men are axiomatically predators pursuing children. And sexism is pervasive and unembarrassed—women are consistently referred to as “bitches.” We might be able to forgive Culp and young screenwriter Walter Hill (another Peckinpah fan) since the bitterness toward women seems to flow out of the two men’s self-loathing and utter inability to relate to women, or to society. After Hickey’s ex-wife (Rosalind Cash in a fine role) is brutally murdered as the mob closes in on the detectives, Hickey is angrily berated by his mother-in-law (Isabel Sandford) as a “lowdown son of a bitch.” Nearby, Hickey’s young daughter overhears the tirade, collapsing in grief as she mows the lawn. Few films have captured so intelligently the casual emotional abuse suffered by children. But the film’s moments of sensitivity are overtaken by the misogyny that undergirds its pessimism. Boggs finds a stony-faced Hickey drowning his grief over his dead ex-wife in a local bar. Trying to rouse him as they prepare for their last stand against the mob, Boggs says: “They’re gonna bury us, just because you can’t get this dumb, stupid, pitiful bitch outta your guts!” Perhaps more important than the dreadful misogyny is the evidence, clearer here than in many male-oriented action films, that the male buddies are at the film’s emotional center, and that their romance is what drives the film. This romance always uses as its cover fear of women and gays.

The film shows the mob as simply part of the American business scene; it is among the best films to do so. A hood spends his days punching numbers into a pocket calculator. Michael Moriarty, looking like John Dean of Watergate fame, is a fresh-faced, nattily dressed strategy man; the reptilian qualities Moriarty displayed in some horror films of the period, and the otherwise execrable TV miniseries Holocaust, are part of the film’s riches. His character can exchange his briefcase for a .30 caliber machine gun with aplomb. The hoods talk, with a touch of reluctance, about their need to recover their stolen “property,” a reasonable enough idea.

A firearms expert who trained actors like Steve McQueen in the proper handling of prop weapons (you can see Culp’s stunts on YouTube), Culp downplays the glamor of guns in this film. Boggs carries a .44 Magnum, the most popular handgun in the world after the success of Dirty Harry (1971). But, despite the lengths to which Clint Eastwood and director Don Siegel went to make the weapon dashing and handy, Culp/Boggs knows it is more than cumbersome, and simply can’t be worn in a shoulder holster, carrying it instead wrapped in filthy newspaper. And for all its monumental power, he can’t hit anything with it, as Boggs notes in some after-battle maundering.

After the final shoot-out with mob emissaries, Hickey repeats what seems to be his absurdist mantra: “It’s not about anything.” He notes that for all the gunfire, not one onlooker appeared, even out of pure curiosity. Boggs remarks: “Nobody cares.” The two men walk toward the setting sun as “The Ballad of Hickey and Boggs” fills the soundtrack, which strikes one as a melancholy love lyric, all the more affecting when we realize that it is indeed about the love shared by these two men. Hickey’s refrain about the absurdity of modern life is a good coda for a film that, as much as any other in the Seventies, announces the decline of America, due to “the system,” criminals, and men like Hickey and Boggs. I come away feeling, as I did in the Seventies, that Sam Peckinpah’s words about the characters in his film The Wild Bunch are applicable: “It is interesting to me how, in the end, you feel sympathy for these wretched men.”

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University.

To purchase Hickey & Boggs, click here.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1