For the longest time it seems this movie languished in obscurity. I had heard of it almost as soon as I started delving into All Things Culp, but finding the thing proved a task. Up until 2011, there had not been an official DVD release and apparently whatever copy was out there floating around, was not of the greatest quality. One grainy clip of Culp and Cosby going into the hotel to try to find Mary Jane was about all I’d ever seen of the film. And that wasn’t even posted on YouTube.
Then sometime in 2009, I found the movie available through iTunes (and still is). Naturally I purchased and downloaded it, although I lamented going this route. I pined for a DVD, something tangible that ensured, for the most part, that I would always have the movie, even if I burned through the computer that I downloaded it to (which, eventually, I did.)
Thankfully, 20th Century Fox on behalf of MGM released the film in a manufacture on demand format – along with several other MGM titles that Fox now has the rights to – in 2011.
What saddens me is that Culp did not live to see the film finally get a proper DVD release. The demise of MGM in the 70’s, the breakup of the studio’s film catalogue between other studios (Fox, Warner and Sony/Paramount) pretty much shoved everything into a vault for years while legal issues were hammered out before any of these titles could see the light of day again. Also, before the advent of the manufacture on demand, studios were hesitant to make the investment into a DVD release for a movie that they felt probably wouldn’t get much of a return.
Very unfortunate, as it would have been fitting to have Culp put together a “director’s cut” or at least a good amount of extras and commentary on the movie.
What we do have though, is various tidbits and commentary about the movie via other sources that I wish to bring together here. Bonus material, if you will, that didn’t make the DVD…
The re-teaming of Culp and Cosby was certainly noted by the media at the time the film was being shot in September/October of 1971. I Spy had ended 3 years earlier but was still fairly fresh on people’s minds. (At the time I Spy was cancelled, it was still pulling good ratings. So why was it cancelled? That’s another story).
Culp was very clear, however, when speaking about Hickey & Boggs to the public. “The story has nothing to do with ‘I Spy,’” he was quoted in the press at the time. “The fellows we played were winners, obviously. These two guys – Hickey & Boggs – are losers.”
Most entertainment writers noted the same thing but their stories played up the I Spy angle more than anything. Michel Poiccard of the Los Angeles Times noted in October of ’71, “’Hickey & Boggs’ will obviously generate much of its interest because it stars a team of actors who are both well known and loved by American audiences.”
Critically, it did garner interest. The film got a mix of good and “meh” reviews, some who praised the acting of Cosby and Culp, appreciated Culp’s directing skills, the use of locations, establishing a mood, ect. ect. The Pittsburgh Press (now Pittsburgh Post) called the film a “fine thriller about human private detectives.” Although the reviewer noted that it was sometimes confusing, they compared it to The Big Sleep noting that Hickey & Boggs’ “momentum comes more from characters and isolated situations than from the coherent flow of a story.”
Jamie Portman of The Calgary Herald also lamented that the plot “suffers from severe confusion if not dislocation.” But even he seemed to forgive this, extolling more about the characters and characterization of Al Hickey and Frank Boggs. “You can talk all you want about the gut realism of Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe or Lew Archer stories; but they are also invested with a rueful romanticism. The romanticism has gone sour in Hickey and Boggs.” Portman concluded that Hickey & Boggs “is a metaphysical detective thriller – fragmented, maddening and extraordinarily watchable.”
Frank DeGuida of The Milwaukee Sentinel applauded the film, the Culp and Cosby reunion and appreciated Culp’s direction, in particular the action sequences and Culp’s “fine sense of composition, with many shots presenting interesting visual effects.” DeGuida concluded, “all in all, if Culp has a sequel in mind when he has his heroes walk away into the sunset after the final shootout, I, for one, am looking forward to seeing it.”
Not all critics were as generous. Some couldn’t figure out who was who and what was what. Some blamed the script, some the directing. Others just didn’t get it, such as Variety which complained that the script ”suffers through audience never being entirely certain as to the identity of some of the characters.” (While some critics appreciated that the film didn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence by having to explain everything, Variety reviewers apparently liked their movies simple and spoon fed.)
I did not find any reviews from any Florida newspapers, which, so far in my searches, typically were less than kind of any Culp film or tv show (leading me to believe that it simply must have been depressing to live in Florida in the ’70s.) However, I did find a review from the Ocala Star-Banner for when the movie premiered on television on NBC’s “Saturday Night at the Movies” in March of 1976. The reviewer noted the following about the plot: “During their travels through the less glamorous sections of Los Angeles, Hickey and Boggs stumble up on a major case that places them in the midst of a major hold up at Dodger Stadium.” Um…what?
But overall, the critical response was positive. Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into much success at the box office. Although critics seemed positive about the film being well done and such, they also noted, heavily, that the film really was a downer. However, in looking at the promotional materials for the film at the time – the trailer and movie poster – the movie seems to suffer a little of an identity crisis. The trailer at least is fairly clear; two down and out PIs who are in over their heads but the funkified music and Dragnet-esque voice over ruins it.
Then there’s the poster. It has a great photo of Culp and Cosby on it with the shot up Rolls Royce and the very blunt tag line: “They’re not cool, slick heroes, they’re worn tough men and that’s what makes them so dangerous. They hold their .44 magnums with both hands and keep shooting until they hit something. Anything.”
I understand the first line, a bit of a poke at the fact that this is not I Spy. But the rest of it, about shooting their guns until they hit something…. The poster doesn’t so much as even hint at any thing else about these two men (ie, that they’re PIs) and I can’t help but wonder if they’re a couple of guys who just go berserk (ala Michael Douglas in Falling Down) and start shooting people. And ya know, I wouldn’t wanna see Culp n’ Cosby in a movie like that.
Perhaps, that may have been what kept others from seeing the film too. The whole “this isn’t I Spy” angle may have been driven home too much.
It may have just been, perhaps, that the average movie goer didn’t want to see Culp and Cosby as “losers.” The point was certainly driven home enough, in both reviews and in the promotion of the film that these two characters were down trodden, seedy, bottom of the barrel type guys. Cosby’s expression on the movie poster is pretty hang dog for a guy whose bread and butter is comedy. And Culp, after being handsome and dashing as Kelly Robinson, looks…well, he looks like shit in this movie. He’s pale, drawn and has what has to be the worst hair cut I’ve ever seen on him.
But friends, that’s what makes it all work.
When I first saw this movie I was struck by both Culp and Cosby’s performances in this. I grew up knowing Bill Cosby as he was on The Cosby Show and also remember a children’s show he did called Picture Pages. This is the guy who wore those wild sweaters during The Cosby Show run in the 80s, pitched Jello products and is a hilarious comedian. Of course, I was familiar with I Spy before seeing the movie, but nothing he did there was nearly as dark as what he did in Hickey & Boggs. I was genuinely impressed.
I don’t believe Bill Cosby would have done this kind of movie if Robert Culp had not directed it. This is not Cosby’s typical vehicle but Culp knew the kind of performance he could get from Cosby and got it.
As for Robert Culp…damn, I thought. He is so damn good at what he does, he really looks like a downtrodden, bottom of the barrel, crawling into the bottle kinda guy. He can’t run worth a damn in this thing. Brilliant!
Ah, well I might have been giving Culp a little too much credit. Not that he’s not that damn good at what he did (because he was) but come to find out he had something happen to him two weeks before filming started that contributed to his somewhat less than stellar physical appearance here.
He had double hernia surgery. That’s right. Double. Ouch.
Which explains his tripping down stairs, limping running style and being bent at the waist whenever he could get away with it. This is especially noticeable at the end of the shootout scene at the Coliseum, when Boggs is at the top of the bleachers looking down at Hickey and the dead bag man on the ground, leaning on the fence, bent double and looking like he’s making sure his innards are still where they’re supposed to be.
Culp told nobody about having surgery, except Cosby who would have known something was wrong. Culp swore Cosby to secrecy because if the insurance company knew about it, the production would have been shut down immediately, something Culp couldn’t afford to have happen.
There are a lot more interesting stories and tidbits about the movie, more than I can possibly do justice by cramming into this post, so instead I invite you to check out the following three part video. Back in 2007, there was a screening of Hickey & Boggs at the Aero Theatre in Los Angeles and Robert Culp was on hand for a Q&A session afterward. He talks about everything, from getting the script, the financial backing, directing it, the clothes he and Cosby wore (Cosby hated them), the “laughing garbage man” and the hernia surgery, amongst other things. All three parts together total about 40 minutes or so. The video is originally from the folks at Criminally Unknown. A great “featurette” for this Hickey & Boggs 40th anniversary salute! (Links originally lost in 2012, restored in 2015).
My capapalooza post for “Hickey & Boggs” can be found here.
And finally, Hickey & Boggs is available on DVD and Blu-ray through Amazon.com. Do yourself a favor, get this movie!