Review by Cullen Gallagher
Posted on 19 January 2011
Source Bootleg DVD
Hickey & Boggs is a lament for the very thing it destroys: the heroic myth of the Private Detective. Those hardboiled ideals come crashing down the moment we meet our protagonists, down-on-their-luck partners Hickey (Bill Cosby) and Boggs (Robert Culp, also the film’s director).
The duo is seated at a bar, a fond and familiar place for many a Private Eye. But they’re not lamenting a case, or a dame, or even nursing a massive hangover. Instead, Boggs is moaning about how he can’t sell his house, and Hickey can’t decide whether to pay the phone bill or the answering service bill. It’s a sisyphusian tragedy: they can’t hear from clients without the answering service, and they can’t call them back without the phone. But, they have one case, and maybe they might get lucky.
Hickey and Boggs are given $500 to track down a missing woman. They think their problems are solved, but they’re only beginning. When they visit their first lead, they find a corpse and several thousand dollars that are traced back to a $400,000 unsolved bank robbery, but not the woman they want. It doesn’t take long for bullets to start flying and corpses to start piling up, and with the gangsters as eager as the cops to get Hickey and Boggs off the case, its only a matter of time before the duo winds up in prison or in the morgue. Forever losers, Hickey and Boggs are destined to always be behind the eight ball.
Hickey & Boggs was the debut script by future director Walter Hill (The Warriors). His clever and intelligent reworking of the Private Eye genre anticipates more well-known revisionist noirs like Robert Altman’s 1972 The Long Goodbye (screenwriter Leigh Brackett’s inspired overhauling of Chandler’s iconic novel) and Roman Polanski’s 1974 Chinatown (a dark hymn to Los Angeles corruption). Sometimes the logic of Hill’s script goes awry, with scenes passing from one to the next with grim determination but little explanation. However, Robert Culp’s moody direction and the compelling performances from the two leads more than carries the film whenever the plot becomes too confusing to follow.
As a first-time director, Robert Culp is impressive. He nails the atmosphere in every shot: Los Angeles’ asphalt jungle is sprawling and indifferent; the title duo’s drab offices and homes are depressingly mundane; and the poetic, elegiac shootout on the beach is one of the film’s most memorable scenes (and it prefigures similarly beachfront moments from Altman’s The Long Goodbye, one year later). The stakeouts, shootouts and chases are all exciting without losing sight of the anti-romantic tone of the film as a whole. Only during the stadium shootout does Culp’s crosscutting become confusing, losing track of whose bullets are flying where (but the scene is still good fun).
More than anything, Culp is an actor’s director. From the detectives’ increasingly hunched posture, Boggs’ limp, the frequent appearance of hot dogs in their hands, and the recurring dumbfounded look of defeat on their faces, Culp gives himself and Cosby the opportunity to rise above the clichés and give new life (and death) to the Private Eye. The two of them make Hill’s hardboiled dialogue natural while still emphasizing its poetic, literary qualities. Lines like “There’s nothing left of this profession. It’s all over” (Hickey) and “I gotta get a bigger gun, can’t hit nothing” (Boggs) capture the detectives’ professional inadequacy and philosophical existentialism. Even if they could do their job well, they still wouldn’t believe in it anymore, and therein lies their dilemma.
Does the Private Detective matter anymore? They’re not heroes, they’re not helping those in need, the cops are more capable, and they can’t even help themselves. Unlike many of their predecessors, Hickey and Boggs don’t even delude themselves into thinking they are helping society. They want to pay their debtors and patch up their relationships. But they’re broke, Hickey’s wife won’t let him back in the house, and Boggs is so desperate to help his ex-wife (whose alimony he can’t pay) that he cashes in a favor to get her a stripping job, and she doesn’t even thank him for that. Hickey and Boggs aren’t heroes either in a macro or micro sense of the word. They’re failures and they know it. And for that reason alone they keep going forward. Like Sam Spade before them, they don’t want to play the patsy to nobody. They want to settle the score if only to break even, both in a cosmic sense as well as the practical. There are those bills to pay, after all.
And at the end of the film, like a final eulogy, the detectives share this dialog:
Hickey: “Nobody came.” Boggs: “Nobody cares.” Hickey: “Thanks.” Boggs: “Anytime.” Hickey: “It’s still not about anything.” Boggs: “Yeah, I know, you told me.”
No longer heroes. No longer anything. Now that the case is over, they cease to exist, and their profession is without purpose. It’d be mighty depressing if it weren’t for the camaraderie between the two detectives, a common sense of having been discarded by society long ago and only recently realizing how useless they are. Walking along the beach as the waves hit the shore, the modern world has passed Hickey and Boggs by once and for all.
The Private Detective is dead. Long live the Private Detective.