Monday, September 12, 2011
From 1965 to 1968, actors Robert Culp and Bill Cosby (long before Pudding-Pops and Cliff Huxtable) starred in I SPY, arguably the most realistic and believable of the era's espionage adventures. While the witty banter between the stars is what most people remember, it was the only 60s spy show to actually deal with the realities of the Cold War. There were no world-threatening megalomaniacs with hollowed-out volcanoes or fictional organizations like SPECTRE or THRUSH; most often the heroes were opposed by the Soviets or Red Chinese. It was great show, generally serious, and occasionally quite dark.
In 1972 Culp & Cosby re-united for the private eye flick HICKEY & BOGGS, and while their chemistry remains intact, the film's tone is not only far darker than their TV series - it's positively grim.
Al Hickey (Cosby) is an ex-cop-turned-private investigator, broke, estranged from his wife and child, and deeply cynical. His partner, Frank Boggs (Culp, who also directed), is a divorced alcoholic who sleeps with cheap hookers and tortures himself by occasionally frequenting a seedy strip club where his ex-wife dances. The pair can barely keep themselves and their detective agency afloat. Then, one day, a wealthy client hires them to find a woman. The guy's a skeeve, but they need the money, and his cash is good. Unfortunately, the woman is also being hunted by the mob, who believes she knows the location of a cache of stolen money. Before long, people start turning up dead, and our protagonists find themselves caught up in a maelstrom of violence that they don't fully understand, forced to see it through only because there's nothing else they can do...
Written by Walter Hill (48 HOURS, EXTREME PREJUDICE, THE WARRIORS), Culp's 70s neo-noir is a decidedly bleak and cynical look at humanity. No one in the film is an innocent and no one's motives are pure. Even Hickey & Boggs are initially motivated only by money - which is literally essential to their survival. When they lose their client and events begin to take a violent turn, Boggs suggests that they simply run away. And in the end, it's only a desire for vengeance - ultimately hollow in itself - that keeps the duo on the case. As Hickey says, ultimately, "...no one cares. It's still not about anything."
HICKEY & BOGGS is a terrific - if depressing - film, and it's a shame that Culp never directed another feature. The cast is full of familiar and talented actors (including a very young James Woods and Michael Moriarty), stylishly edited, and well-shot by William Butler. It's also a film that requires a lot of attention from the viewer - nothing is spelled out or spoon-fed to the audience - but it really is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. It's too bad that it's been so hard to see... until recently.
It was not well-received by audiences and critics in 1972, and in the subsequent decades, it was never legitimately released on home video, and only sporadically appeared in television syndication. A few months ago, a nice, remastered print started showing up on cable movie channels, and then as an online download. Now MGM's manufactured-on-demand label has brought this underrated - and underseen - crime fiction gem to DVD.
The newly-released MGM Limited Edition Collection, high quality DVD-R presents HICKEY & BOGGS with a gorgeous, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. There is virtually no print damage or wear evident, not even reel-change "cigarette burn" markers. Detail, contrast and colors are excellent. The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is clear and free of hiss or distortion. There are no extras included.
HICKEY & BOGGS is a great, dark, private eye film anchored by a strong script and its two stars. It's challenging, and in no way a "feel good" movie, but well-worth seeing. Highly recommended.
BUY: Mod-Hickey and Boggs