Hickey & Boggs is torn between a devotion to genre routine and a willingness to strike out its own weirder, more personal path. Walter Hill’s script, his first sold to Hollywood, offers a variation of what would become one of the presiding themes of his work: devout professionalism as a way of staking out personal honor in a dishonorable atmosphere. That theme is commonplace of the western and the noir, Hill’s two favorite genres, but, as a director, he’s often able to transcend the typicality of his concepts with elegantly direct symbolism and gorgeous action scenes that are among the best to come out of American cinema. Hill, however, didn’t direct Hickey & Boggs. Those duties were assumed by star Robert Culp at co-star Bill Cosby’s request, representing a decidedly bleak post-I Spy reunion for the pair. Culp’s work is sturdy and confident, but he more or less approaches Hill’s script as a straightforward procedural; the film lacks the obsessive edge that might have elevated it to the poetic realm that’s occupied by Hill’s best films.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. Culp displays a feel for understatement that’s of pivotal importance to Hill’s work; he doesn’t push exposition into the audience’s face, allowing them to feel their own way around the room, so to speak. Dialogue is mumbled in between the smoking and chewing up of cigars and the belting of shots, and the plot, which pertains to a chase for 400,000 dollars in stolen loot, is purposefully elusive in the 1970s tradition of beside-the-point existential detective narratives. There’s a great image of Boggs (Culp) staring out of his window at a vast cityscape after concluding business with a prostitute who may or may not be male. (It’s suggested, with a vagueness that’s also characteristic of the genre in the 1970s, that Boggs might be gay, despite his obsession with his ex-wife.) And there’s a striking scene where Hickey (Cosby) is read the riot act by his recently murdered ex-wife’s grieving mother (Isabel Sanford). Culp frames this as a close-up on Hickey, alternating with medium shots of his daughter (Ta-Ronce Allen) that appear to be rendered in barely perceptible slow motion. The cumulative effect astutely approximates that metaphorical “drowning” sensation that’s associated with grief.
There aren’t enough scenes with that sort of originality, not enough to justify the convolutions of the plot. Hickey & Boggs is probably intended as a Big Sleep kind of film in which the narrative is but a pretext for introducing the particulars of an underworld (an ambition realized a year later by Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye and, recently, by Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice), but Culp’s underworld isn’t that interesting; he doesn’t have Hill’s talent for compressed, suggestively comic-erotic iconography. Too many scenes inexpressively revel in cops and crooks yelling at each other in the usual tough-guy fashions, and the pace is off: Each moment appears to be isolated, and over-extended, within its own structural eco-chamber. Hickey & Boggs is diverting for fans of the crime-movie genre, but it remains most interesting as a footnote in the careers of its filmmakers, particularly Hill’s.
The image is sturdy and clean. Flesh tones are full and robust, grain levels appropriate, and colors are vibrant and attractive. Background detail is soft on occasion, but it’s not a significant issue. The soundtrack adeptly handles the tricky tapestry of shoot-outs, squealing tires, barroom chatter, and whispered exposition that comprises much of the film’s sonic experience. Every noise sounds in proper proportion, and clarity is dense and terrific.
Though it’s as bare as barebones can be, this Kino Lorber disc offers a surprisingly substantial transfer of a not-quite genre gem that will be almost solely of interests to cinephiles or Walter Hill completests (who are more or less one and the same).